Anaemia may be linked to increased dementia risk

"Iron-rich foods such as steak…could cut the risk of dementia in later life, say researchers" is the misleading claim in the Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph follows suit, stating that scientists claim we should "Eat steak to reduce risk of dementia…

"Iron-rich foods such as steak…could cut the risk of dementia in later life, say researchers" is the misleading claim in the Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph follows suit, stating that scientists claim we should "Eat steak to reduce risk of dementia".

But the cohort study that both papers seized on did not actually look directly at diet. The study followed more than 2,550 older adults for over a decade and found that those who had anaemia at the start of the study were more likely to go on to develop dementia.

Anaemia is caused by reduced levels of either red blood cells or the oxygen-carrying pigment in red blood cells called haemoglobin, and has a wide range of potential causes.

As well as diet-related causes, stomach ulcers, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease or, in some cases, a general poor state of health are all associated with anaemia.

Both papers' reporting and narrow focus on diet is based on a simplistic view of anaemia and is not supported by the study's results.

Overall, this study does suggest a link between anaemia, general poor health and dementia. But whether anaemia directly causes an increase in dementia risk is difficult to tease out. 

More studies are therefore needed to determine whether a preventative strategy that just targets anaemia could effectively reduce the risk of dementia, or whether a more wide-ranging strategy is needed.

 

Can dementia be prevented?

There is no certain way of preventing all types of dementia.

 

But there are lifestyle choices you can make that can help reduce your risk of developing dementia and other serious health conditions. You can make changes such as:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising regularly
  • not drinking too much alcohol
  • stopping smoking (if you smoke)

Read more about ways you can reduce your dementia risk.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Ajou University School of Medicine in South Korea and other research centres in the US. It was funded by the US National Institute of Aging, National Institutes of Health, and the American Health Assistance Foundation.

It was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Neurology.

Both the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph extrapolated the study's results to suggest that iron-rich foods can delay the onset of dementia. They also both suggest in their headlines that the researchers in the study advise people to eat iron-rich foods to prevent dementia.

However, the study did not look at people's diets or assess the impact of changing diet, and doesn't make recommendations about diet based on their findings.

As the researchers make clear in their conclusion, "The implications of these findings for dementia prevention are not clear".

Eating iron-rich foods does reduce the risk of iron deficiency anaemia and, in some cases, helps combat iron deficiency anaemia in those who have the condition.

However, this study looked at all types of anaemia, not just anaemia caused by iron deficiency. We therefore can't be certain that this would reduce the risk of dementia.

 

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