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50+: Live Better, Longer

Some U.S. Elderly Take Unnecessary Iron Supplements

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 26, 2001 -- Quite a few elderly people are taking unneeded and possibly harmful iron supplements, according to a study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers looked at data on about 1,000 elderly Americans from the Framingham Heart Study. "We found 16% were taking supplements containing iron, and their average consumption was about 30 mg per day, above and beyond what they got in their diet," senior author Richard J. Wood, PhD, tells WebMD. "Recommended intake in this age group would be 10 mg [per day]." Wood is chief of the mineral bioavailability laboratory at the USDA human nutrition research center on aging at Tufts University in Boston.

People take iron because they want to prevent anemia. In the group that was studied, 3% of people had too little iron, while about 13% had too much. "Our findings suggest that the use of unprescribed iron supplements in free-living, elderly white Americans is probably unnecessary and could be detrimental," the authors write.

Although experts don't know for sure whether excess iron in the body is harmful to the elderly, some studies suggest that people with elevated iron stores may be at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. However, these theories are highly controversial, and further research is needed.

Until more is known, people should check their vitamin and mineral supplements and make sure they're not taking more iron than the recommended daily amount, says Corinne Adler, RD. "There's a whole mentality that says, 'If a little is good, more must be better.' Unfortunately, that isn't true," says Adler, who is a nutritionist in private practice in Boston.

"Iron is not one of the nutrients an elderly population should go overboard with," says Joel S. Edman, DSc, FACN. "Because of concerns that some people may be taking unnecessary iron, many multivitamins are now made in two forms, either with or without iron." Edman is staff nutritionist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Keep in mind that iron needs vary dramatically at different stages of life. "Iron deficiency is much more common among children and women of childbearing age," says Elias Schwartz, MD. "In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that baby formula should be supplemented with iron. Once a child is on a solid diet, after the age of about 2, they probably get enough iron in the food they eat." Schwartz is professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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