A Guide to Anemia in Seniors: Causes, Treatments, and More

It has been estimated that around 10% of all seniors over the age of 65 have anemia. The risk increases as you age and there can be several causes. 

Anemia is a cause for concern, but it many cases, it can be treated fairly easily.

In this guide, we’ll see how seniors are affected by anemia while looking at the symptoms, causes, and possible treatments.

What is Anemia?

Anemia is characterized by a lack of red blood cells. These cells transport oxygen to the body’s tissues and help with the elimination of carbon dioxide. The absence of red blood cells causes severe fatigue, heart problems, and in extreme situations, death. Although, in this latter case, the cause is a specific condition known as sickle cell anemia.

What are the Causes of Anemia?

Anemia exists in many forms and can be caused by a host of conditions, including:

Iron Deficiency

This is by far the most common type of anemia. Your body needs iron to produce red blood cells, and if there’s not enough, it won’t produce enough red blood cells.  

Iron deficiency is common in pregnant women and during heavy menstruation. It can also result from blood loss and certain medications, and because of potential issues associated with menstruation and pregnancy, it is more common in women.

Women on a vegan and vegetarian diet are also more susceptible, as many iron-rich foods are animal-based, including fish, beef, tinned fish, and seafood. However, it is possible to get adequate iron from a varied vegan diet, consuming foods like beans, tofu, split peas, nuts, and seeds.

In addition, iron is often added to breakfast cereals and other fortified foods, and supplements are widely available. People suffering from serious iron deficiency may struggle to get an adequate intake from food alone and will be prescribed medication.

Vitamin Deficiency

Your body uses vitamin B-12 to produce adequate amounts of iron. If your diet is lacking in these compounds, you may be lacking in iron as well. Again, this condition is more common in people consuming restricted diets.

Vegetarians generally don’t have issues consuming enough vitamin B-12, as it’s found in eggs, milk, and cheese.  Vegans may struggle and resort to vitamins, but they can also consume tofu, fortified non-dairy milk and cereals, and nutritional yeast.

Anemia Caused by Diseases

Numerous diseases can cause anemia, either by depleting the body, reducing its ability to absorb, or causing chronic inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and many bone marrow diseases can cause anemia of varying severities.

There are also inherited forms of this disease, include sickle cell anemia, which is much more serious.

Why Do Seniors Get Anemia?

As the body ages, it becomes more susceptible to disease. Some of these are simply the result of the passage of time. For instance, many seniors have dental problems and while there can be many underlying causes, it’s also the result of a lifetime of wear, tear, and trauma. 

Every year you age, your risk of losing a tooth increases. When you add 70 or 80 years to the mix, it’s inevitable that many of those teeth will have disappeared. Where anemia is concerned, the dietary, disease, and medication risk factors increase over time and are responsible for the disproportionate number of anemia cases amongst seniors.

Over 80% of senior anemia cases have a diagnosed cause. The most common causes are chronic disease and a lack of B-12 or iron. If you’re on multiple medications and have a preexisting health condition to worry about, anemia may seem unavoidable and inevitable, and while that may be the case, but it still needs to be treated.

If you present with any of the symptoms of anemia, speak with your doctor. They will look for a root cause and will prescribe a treatment accordingly:

  • Fatigue and chronic tiredness
  • Jaundiced or pale skin
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Regular bouts of dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Regular headaches
  • Cold extremities
  • Shortness of breath

If left untreated, the symptoms will persist and could lead to complications, so it’s important to discuss these issues with your doctor if you’re experiencing them.

Foods to Help with Anemia

Along with vitamin B-12 and folate, both of which are essential in the production of iron, your body needs plenty of vitamin C. Fortunately, this is much more readily available.

To point you in the right direction, here are some of the best foods to help with iron deficiency:

  • Iron Containing Foods: Red meat is often highlighted as the best food for iron and it certainly has a lot of this nutrient. However, for seniors who have digestive problems and are at risk of heart disease, it may not be the best option. Alternative sources that are equally high in protein include beans, lentils, and low-fat white meats. You also get iron from many dried fruits and leafy greens.
  • Folate Containing Foods: Leafy greens are rich in folate and you’ll also find this nutrient in many fruits. However, the most common source of folate in the western diet is bread and cereals, as they are all enriched with large amounts of folate.
  • Vitamin B-12 Containing Foods: Meat, dairy, nutritional yeast, and fortified soy milk are great sources of vitamin B-12. It is an abundant vitamin and is available for low prices in its synthetic form, so if you’re not getting enough, look for some B-12 supplements.
  • Vitamin C Containing Foods: Not only can vitamin C help your skin and nails, but it’s great for your immune system and is a common antioxidant. Vitamin C is also abundant and can be found in many fruits and vegetables. Oranges are often said to be one of the best sources, but you’ll get more from a single kiwi and can also find plenty of this nutrient in melon, berries, and tomatoes.

Help with Anemia

If you have an issue with nutrient absorption, a diet rich in iron may not suffice. Furthermore, if you don’t have anemia and merely suspect that it is the cause of your fatigue and other symptoms, you may experience similar symptoms. The irony (forgive the pun) of iron deficiency and iron overload is that they both present with fatigue, irregular heartbeats, and changes in skin color.

In extreme situations, excess iron can also lead to heart problems and liver disease, although you need to be consuming heavy doses in supplement form for this to be a concern.

Speak with your doctor, run those tests, and get a diagnosis.