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Extra iron: Hard on the heart?

You’ve heard how good iron is for you, how you should make sure it’s in your multivitamin and how you should consider buying cereal fortified with this nutrient. But can too much of a good thing actually be bad for your heart?

Despite what advertisers tell us, the need for iron varies greatly among men and women, and other factors must also be considered, such as age, overall health and the body’s ability to absorb this trace mineral. It’s true that when a diet lacks adequate iron, the body doesn’t make enough red blood cells. As a result, muscles and other bodily tissues don’t receive adequate oxygen—a condition called iron-deficiency anemia. However, most healthy men and postmenopausal women get all the iron they need from a balanced diet.

Ironing out the questions

Some researchers have linked iron levels to heart attack risk, especially among older people. One theory holds that the excess iron women begin to accumulate after menopause contributes to their increased risk for heart disease at that time. Men have higher amounts of iron from late adolescence onward, which could explain why male heart-disease rates begin to rise after age 20.

In both sexes, excess iron is thought to disrupt important oxidation reactions the heart needs to function properly. For this reason, supplementing with additional iron may be unnecessary and potentially dangerous for older adults.

How much?

For most people, it’s easy to get enough iron by eating meat, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, eggs, whole grains and leafy green vegetables. To increase your body’s ability to absorb the type of iron found in grains and vegetables, accompany the meal with a vitamin C–rich food, such as an orange. On the other hand, foods or supplements containing calcium will impair your body’s ability to absorb the iron.

In general, these amounts of iron are recommended:

  • Women of childbearing age need 18 milligrams of iron a day for good health and to prevent anemia, a condition that sometimes develops from losing too much blood during menstruation.
  • Women past menopause need 8 milligrams.
  • Men need 8 milligrams.
  • Pregnant women need a much higher amount—27 milligrams a day. It may be difficult to get that much in your daily diet, which is why many obstetricians recommend supplements.

If you are concerned about iron, ask your physician to perform a simple blood test to check for a deficiency. This will eliminate the guesswork and ensure you take the right supplements.