Is Anemia in the Elderly Inevitable

Is Anemia in the Elderly Inevitable?

More than 80 percent of the elderly population tests positive for anemia, so it is important to understand what should be done in order to correct the problem. Anemia is common to aging, but it is not an inevitable part of it. In fact, anemia in the elderly is often an indication that something else is wrong. By treating the underlying condition that is causing the anemia, elderly patients can enjoy a better quality of life as they age.


Nutrition Is important


Of course, nutrition plays a vital role. Without proper levels of iron and Vitamin B-12, anyone can suffer from anemia. In order to overcome these deficiencies, it is important that a person eats a well varied diet that includes lean beef, whole grains, lean chicken, eggs, nuts, seeds, and a variety of fruits and veggies that span the colors of the rainbow. As the elderly person’s taste buds change and even as appetite levels decrease, it is important that he or she choose the foods that will enhance health.


Although nutrition often does not often fix the anemia, it can be a great way to help enhance a loved one’s overall health, and it can be preventive of the health issues that lead to anemia.


Nutrition May Not Be Enough


However, nutrition and even supplements may only go so far in resolving cases of elderly anemia. Unlike anemia in the younger population, anemia in the elderly is often the result of a chronic illness or a side effect of a particular medication. In the elderly, the most common reason for anemia is chronic disease, thus the name “anemia of chronic disease.” A few of the most common diseases to cause anemia include:


  • Chronic UTIs (urinary tract infections)
  • Rheumatoid illnesses
  • Lymphoma
  • Heart conditions
  • Osteoarthritis


The bodies of elderly patients with these chronic illnesses (and many elderly people have multiple illnesses) have difficulty using the body’s stored iron, which leads to the presence of anemia. This is different than a nutritional deficiency that leaves the body depleted of the necessary iron supplements, which is why the underlying cause needs to be determined and treated first. Changing a person’s diet to include more iron will not necessarily have the desired effect.


Common Tests for the Elderly with Anemia


An elderly person that presents the signs of anemia may have to undergo particular tests to determine the cause of the anemia. One of the most common is a bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy to determine if a particular medication the patient takes is causing bone marrow suppression, which can result in anemia. This is a particularly large problem in patients that take many different medications at once. Sometimes the combination of the medications complicates the bone marrow suppression.


Other common tests to determine if a particular disease is present include tests for:


  • Renal failure
  • Certain types of cancer, especially lymphoma
  • Collagen vascular disease
  • Chronic inflammation or infection


These tests can help to uncover the underlying cause and prevent the need to take costly, injectable medications such as EPO or erythropoietin. These medications can have risky side effects, affecting  the quality and length of life of patients with other conditions, namely cancer and heart conditions with renal failure.


Signs of Anemia


Understanding the signs of anemia can lead to getting help sooner rather than later. These signs include:


  • Chronic and sudden fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness


Ignoring these signs can lead to long-term hospitalization and a decrease in an elderly loved one’s abilities when such undesirable outcomes  could have been prevented by early treatment. Understanding what to look for and the tests to request can help an elderly person get control of his or her  health once again.


A discussion about the possibility of anemia in an elderly person should always take place between the patient, any caregivers involved, and a doctor. Sometimes just going over the cocktail of medications the takes is enough to solve the problem, while other times the underlying cause of the anemia is something deeper, such as a serious and chronic condition. Even though 80% of the elderly population suffers from anemia, it is often either preventable or treatable with appropriate diagnosis and physician recommendations.




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Makipour, S., Kanapuru, B., Ershler, W. B. (October 2008). Unexplained Anemia in the Elderly. Seminars in Hematology, 45(4): 250-254. PMC.  Retrieved from Accessed on August 22, 2016.


Smith, D. L. (October 1, 2000). Anemia in the Elderly. American Family Physician, 62(7): 1565-1572. Retrieved from Accessed on August 22, 2016.