As we age, we expect to gradually lose our faculties, but this is actually a very pessimistic view. In fact, it is perfectly possible to enjoy your golden years with full control of your mental powers. Why, then, is old age associated with not being all there? For many people, whatever shape their minds are in, hearing and eyesight do start to diminish with age, so they are literally less aware of the world around them. Depression has been found to be more prevalent in older populations than was previously recognized, and that can lead to symptoms of confusion. But for about one in 20 people over the age of 65, dementia is a real—medical—condition.
Now new research suggests that this may be related to another health problem common in seniors: anemia. Nearly a quarter of people over 65 have anemia, or a deficiency in red blood cells. This condition can have a variety of causes; it can be an effect of certain illnesses, a side effect of some medications, a result of tumors or polyps, or related to poor diet. Seniors with anemia have a 41 percent higher risk of developing dementia than those without, and a diet rich in iron appears to help treat and prevent anemia. Good sources of iron include red meat, green leafy vegetables, tofu, peas, beans, lentils, and dried fruits; many products, particularly those made with flour, are iron-fortified.
It’s not entirely clear why anemia leads to dementia. Indeed, it may be the other way around—Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can develop over periods of years, and researchers speculate that it’s possible the anemia will prove to be an early warning sign, or a sign of poor health generally. Anemia does, however, diminish the supply of oxygen to the brain, which can damage neurons and impair cognitive functioning; this might result in dementia.
This study underscores the connections between brain health and the state of the body. Last year, scientists noticed similarities between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, with overlapping risk factors and pathologies between the two conditions, and a host of preventative measures, such as maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking, that ward off both. High blood pressure is also linked with mental deterioration, with anti-hypertension drugs recently found to reduce dementia indicators.