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This Common Nutrient Deficiency May Increase Your Risk For Dementia

Image by Adrian Cotiga / Stocksy
August 3, 2019

It's become clear in the past few years that nearly every aspect of our lifestyle could influence our risk for developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In fact, recent studies have linked everything from being overweight, not spending enough time with friends, and inadequate sleep to an increased risk for cognitive problems. 

Various nutrients have also been shown to be particularly beneficial for our brains, including certain antioxidants found in blueberries and omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, while others like trans fats and sugar can wreak havoc. 

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And now, new research reveals that being anemic—a condition in which you don't have enough hemoglobin, the component of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen to your various bodily tissues (including brain tissue)—may also prime you for serious problems down the road. 

In this new study published in Neurology, which followed 12,000 people over the course of about 12 years, researchers found that those with the lowest levels of hemoglobin were at a 29% increased risk for developing dementia and a 36% increased risk for developing Alzheimer's over the study period. The fact that hemoglobin carries oxygen throughout the body means that low levels could deprive the brain of the oxygen it needs to function optimally. Researchers also found that abnormally high hemoglobin levels, which can be caused by health issues like heart disease, were associated with increased dementia risk.

Anemia, or low hemoglobin levels, can be caused by a number of health issues, but the most common type is iron-deficiency anemia, i.e. when you don't have enough iron in your body, which can be caused by blood loss or inadequate iron absorption. Some of the main symptoms include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and headaches. Menstruating women are disproportionately affected by iron-deficiency anemia due to the fact that they lose blood through their periods every month, with about 29% of non-pregnant women worldwide being affected. So if you're not getting enough iron via your diet to make up for the iron lost via menstruation, you could end up with anemia. 

Of course, researchers are quick to point out that being anemic does not mean you'll end up with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. Right now, it's just an association, and a number of factors are at play. But if you're feeling weak or abnormally fatigued, particularly around your period, it could be worth getting checked out by your doctor. Getting your anemia under control is important for a number of reasons, as it can also contribute to complications such as hair loss and heart problems. 

And in the meantime, it can't hurt to seek out high-quality sources of iron in your diet from these iron-rich animal- and plant-based foods. Pro tip: The iron in plant foods (non-heme iron) is less bioavailable than that from animals (heme iron), but you can boost absorption by combining it with vitamin-C-rich foods (think sautéed spinach with a squeeze of lemon, or oatmeal with nuts and strawberries).

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Stephanie Eckelkamp
Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor

Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).