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Men's Health

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Too Much Iron in Your Blood?

Then donate a pint. It may protect you against heart disease.


Proof won't come until researchers conduct large and well-controlled studies that compare the heart disease risk of men who regularly give blood with that of men who don't. Already several small studies have been done, however, offering tantalizing evidence that donating blood might be a very good idea.

Take, for example, a study of 2,682 men in Finland reported in the September 1998 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Men who donated blood at least once a year had an 88% lower risk of heart attacks than nondonors. Another study published in the August 1997 issue of Heart found that men who donated blood were less likely than nondonors to show signs of cardiovascular disease.

Critics are quick to point out that people who donate blood may simply be healthier to start with. Yet a 1995 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that the use of bleeding to lower iron levels in a group of 14 patients did reduce cholesterol oxidation. It's another small piece of evidence in support of the benefits of donating blood. By now, Sullivan insists, "there is abundant evidence that favors a public health recommendation to lower iron stores." What's more, he says, there is no risk to a healthy person donating blood, and potentially significant benefit.

Blood banks, for their part, have been a bit squeamish about any motivation for donations other than altruism, even though there's a dire shortage in the blood supply. Self-interest has tainted the blood supply before: Thirty years ago when blood banks paid for blood, some donors would lie about their medical histories so they'd get the money. "People who had a self-interest in donating blood were more likely to have hepatitis and other diseases," Sullivan says.

Today, however, blood is carefully screened for all known blood-borne diseases. And while many doctors aren't yet convinced by Sullivan's iron hypothesis, they all agree on the wisdom and compassion of giving blood. "With all the precautions blood banks take," says Herbert. "There is virtually no risk to donating blood."

Michael Alvear is an Atlanta-based writer. Besides WebMD and other publications, his work has been published in The Los Angeles Times and the Internet magazine Salon.

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