NUTRITION
July 17, 2013

Iron Deficiency's Lasting Impact

Babies with low iron run the risk of a range difficulties that persist into adulthood, even when treated.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Highly prevalent in developing countries, it is the only nutrient deficiency that remains common in industrialized countries as well.

Iron deficiency often affects infants and pregnant women. Most seriously, its effects in infancy and childhood seem to follow a person into adulthood, even after the deficiency has been corrected.

The long-term consequences of early iron deficiency can lead to poor life outcomes for the individual and an unfavorable impact on society. A recent study which looked at the lives of people who had been deficient, uncovered the sorts of problems that appear to follow in its wake. The costs appear to be very great.

Diagnosing and treating iron deficiency as soon as it is detected in children is crucial. When iron is lacking, hemoglobin cannot be produced, and the red blood cells are unable to deliver adequate oxygen to the tissues of the body.

Iron-deficient infants from a working class neighborhood in Costa Rica were treated and followed into adulthood. Researchers checked the participants every five years and did a final assessment at about age 25 when they interviewed the now adult "children" who had been treated for iron deficiency to determine what effects iron deficiency may have had on their lives.

Even after their iron deficiency as children was corrected, many of the adults experienced poor life outcomes. At an average age of 25, 42% of the participants had not completed secondary school and 68% were not currently attending any school or receiving any kind of job training. Forty percent had children even though about a third were unemployed.

Among those who developed chronic iron deficiency, 67 percent did not complete secondary school, 84 percent were not enrolled in any type of school or job training program, and 25 percent were unemployed. This group rated their emotional health (such as feelings of anxiety, depression, detachment, and disassociation) worse, and 83 percent never married.

These observational outcomes indicate that the iron-deficient children run the risk of becoming poorly functioning adults. The researchers believe that their poor emotional health and lack of long-term goals and achievement resulted from their childhood iron deficiency.

Iron is an essential mineral, which is required for the body to function correctly. It is found in the blood where it is an important part of the cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. When iron is lacking, hemoglobin cannot be produced and the red blood cells are unable to deliver adequate oxygen to the tissues of the body.

People who lack iron in their diet can develop anemia, the last stage of iron deficiency, which leads to various health problems, all of which result from a lack of oxygen in the blood and body tissues. Earlier stages of iron deficiency have no symptoms so blood tests are necessary to measure the levels of iron in the body.

A lack of iron in children can manifest itself as fatigue, weakness, headache, poor school performance, an inability to maintain body temperature in a cold environment, behavioral changes, decreased immunity, and more frequent infections.

Iron deficiency in children may be present for months before it is identified. Diagnosing and treating iron deficiency as soon as it is detected in children is crucial. A lack of iron in children can manifest itself as fatigue, weakness, headache, poor school performance, an inability to maintain body temperature in a cold environment, behavioral changes, decreased immunity, and more frequent infections.

Iron deficiency can negatively affect growth and development of both the mind and body of a child. It can also lead children to develop pica, a craving for non-food items like paint, dirt, or starch. In turn, this can contribute to more nutrient deficiencies and health problems.

The observations from this study do not prove that iron deficiency causes poor functioning, but the researchers believe they may show the long-term economic impact of iron deficiency in infants and children. According to the researchers, “If replicated in larger samples, these adverse outcomes [from iron deficiency] represent a substantial loss of human potential that is sad for the individual and detrimental for society.”

The study was published in The Journal of Pediatrics.
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