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Understanding anemia

You feel tired all the time. Friends tell you to get out more and enjoy life, but you just don’t have the energy. In fact, even a little exertion wears you out.

Sound familiar? You could be suffering from anemia, a treatable condition that often goes undetected in older adults.

Anemia is the most common blood disorder in seniors, affecting about 15 percent of those over 65. This figure jumps as high as 45 percent in people ages 85 and up. If you have anemia, you may:

  • tire or fatigue easily
  • feel weak and unable to exercise
  • become breathless or light-headed, after even a little exertion
  • have pale skin
  • suffer from frequent infections

Other, more subtle warning signs include confusion, fainting episodes and chest pains. Falling down frequently may also be a sign to have your blood—as well as your bones—checked.

Although anemia can have profound effects on the body, it is not a disease but a symptom of an underlying health problem.

Cause for concern

Commonly referred to as “low blood count,” anemia develops when the amount of hemoglobin in the blood decreases. Hemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to nourish and energize the body’s tissues. Get too little of this good thing and you’re bound to feel worn out.

A deficiency of iron, folic acid or vitamin B12 can inhibit hemoglobin production. (See “The Nutrients You Need.”) Some seniors lose these nutrients as a result of chronic kidney disease, diabetes, heart disease or autoimmune diseases. If you lose a lot of blood because of an accident or illness, you may also be at risk for anemia.

Cancer is another culprit. Severe fatigue associated with anemia affects 75 percent of people with the disease. The assault on the body’s red blood cells comes from many directions: The cancer itself wreaks havoc on the body, then chemotherapy and radiation—prescribed to treat the cancer—can destroy healthy red blood cells.

Managing the condition

The key to treating anemia is to identify and treat its underlying causes. You can cope with the condition by working with your doctor to find the right combination of diet, medications, and vitamins and mineral supplements. Also be sure to have your blood checked periodically to help you continue to battle fatigue and feel fit.

People who are anemic may need medications or blood transfusions during and after operations to ensure the supply of oxygen in the blood is adequate. If you have anemia and are about to have an operation, talk with your surgeon about managing blood loss during surgery, since anemia poses a threat to your body’s vital organs.

The nutrients you need

These three nutrients are vital to avoid anemia:

  • Iron. Red meat, cereal, green leafy vegetables and other iron-enriched foods replenish the stores needed to produce hemoglobin. A poor diet, excessive bleeding or a digestive tract disorder may lead to anemia, which is treatable with supplements.
  • Vitamin B12. A medical disorder such as diabetes could prevent your body from absorbing the proper amounts of vitamin B12. This condition, known as pernicious anemia, is treated with B12 tablets or injections.
  • Folic acid. A poor diet is usually the problem here. Our bodies can’t store folic acid, found mainly in green leafy vegetables, orange juice and foods fortified with folic acid such as white flour and enriched pasta. People who drink heavily may suffer from this deficiency, since alcohol interferes with the way this nutrient is metabolized. If you are not getting enough folic acid, supplements can help.