Anemia is a blood disorder that causes a decrease in red blood cells. Although it affects many different people, it is especially prevalent in the elderly. The symptoms of anemia, such as fatigue and weakness, are often misconstrued as ordinary signs of aging, but anemia isn’t a natural part of the aging process and needs to be addressed right away in order to really continue aging well.
What Causes Anemia
Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen, so the lower your red blood count is, the less hemoglobin you have, and the less oxygen the cells in your body are getting. Mildly lowered levels of hemoglobin in elderly patients is normal and isn’t necessarily a sign that you aren’t aging well. But excessively low levels can prove to be dangerous.
Your bone marrow needs iron to make hemoglobin, which is why an iron deficiency is one of the leading causes of anemia—without iron, your bone marrow can’t produce enough hemoglobin for healthy red blood cells. Iron deficiency anemia can occur under four circumstances: you’re losing red blood cells faster than your body is able to replace them, your body isn’t able to absorb iron adequately, you’re not getting enough iron in your anti-aging diet, or your body needs more iron than usual, such as during pregnancy.
The use of anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin for extended periods of time can lead to anemia because it can cause bleeding in the digestive tract. Although aspirin is often advised for aging well and is sometimes prescribed to maintain heart health, recent studies have found that taking too much of it can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding, and the excessive, untreated loss of blood can lead to the development of anemia.
Regular cancer screenings are an essential part of aging well, but they are especially important if you are suffering from anemia, as the disorder is one of the symptoms of colon cancer. Even though this particular type of cancer can go undetected for years, there is still gradual blood loss happening in your body, and this can lead to the development of anemia.
Anemia that isn’t associated with an iron deficiency may be the result of inflammation from a chronic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, cancer, kidney disease, or liver cirrhosis. Anemia can also result from chronic infections, including hepatitis B or C.
Symptoms of Anemia
Some of the common symptoms of anemia include weakness, fatigue, a pale complexion, and shortness of breath. Other more advanced symptoms include chest pain, congestive heart failure, cognitive impairment, dizziness, light headedness, and brittle nails. If you’re mildly anemic, you may experience no symptoms at all.
Treatment and Prevention of Anemia
The goal of anemia is to figure out what exactly is causing it, and then reverse it to increase your red blood cell count. It’s important to try and figure out the underlying cause—is it that your body is losing too many red blood cells, it isn’t absorbing iron properly, or that you’re not getting enough to begin with? Treating this underlying cause will help treat the anemia as well.
If you’re not getting enough iron, the fix can be as simple as taking a supplement and tweaking your anti-aging diet. The best food sources for iron include soybeans, lentils, spinach, sesame seeds, garbanzo and lima beans, and olives. You also need to make sure your anti-aging diet provides enough vitamin B and B12, folate, and zinc.
If you suffer from anemia, you may also be prescribed medication to stimulate red blood cell production in your bone marrow. A third option is a blood transfusion; however this is usually reserved for very severe cases of anemia.
If you think you might be anemic, talk to your doctor, who can arrange a blood test to measure your red cells and iron levels. They may also advise you to have more invasive tests done, such as a colonoscopy or upper endoscopy, if need be to determine to what’s causing the anemia.
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