When we were young, we heard repeatedly about the importance of iron. From cereal boxes boosting high iron content to Popeye eating his spinach, we all knew iron intake impacted our health. As it turns out, it’s just as important in our older years as it was when we were young.
An international study that analyzed genetic data of 1.75 million people has found a connection between appropriate blood iron levels and healthier, longer lives. The study’s researchers suggest that abnormal blood iron levels could underlie many conditions that lead to age-related cognitive decline and other health issues.
The massive study looked at three key measures of aging: lifespan, healthspan and longevity. Conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging in Germany, the work involved analysis of patients in three public databases.
Dr Paul Timmers, with the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh, said in a news release that the study suggests “keeping these [blood iron] levels in check could prevent age-related damage.”
Researchers also believe their findings indicate that designing a drug that could mimic the influence of genetic variation on iron metabolism could possibly overcome some impacts of aging.
Higher Blood Iron Levels Found To Shorten Lifespan
The study has sparked interest because of its massive scale and thoroughness. The international team used a statistical technique called Mendelian randomization to reduce bias in the data and make a more accurate attempt to infer causation.
Using this technique, they found that genes in our bodies that metabolize iron are partly responsible for a healthy, long life. They note that diet impacts blood iron levels, and that abnormally high or low levels of blood iron have already been linked to Parkinson’s disease, liver disease and a reduced ability to fight infection as we age.
The researchers used information from the public European ancestry datasets Zenodo, Edinburgh DataShare and Longevity Genomics. This allowed them to look at data equivalent to 1.75 million lifespans and more than 60,000 extremely long-lived people.
The researchers noted that many different factors can potentially impact lifespan and healthspan, including genetics, environment and lifestyle.
Other Studies Into Iron and Aging
The new study comes out as recent and ongoing research has also investigated the connection between blood iron levels and age-related cognitive impairment. The ongoing research suggests either low or high iron levels can become an issue in brain function.
Scientists have long known that high levels of the amyloid protein may indicate a person will develop Alzheimer’s. However, researchers have also known that some people with high amyloids do not develop Alzheimer’s. A study by the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia, is looking at whether iron levels are a factor.
Research at the institute has found that short-term memory, executive function and language ability declined much faster in people with high brain iron levels and high amyloid levels than it did for those with low brain iron levels and high amyloid levels. A clinical trial will further explore the issue.
A review of research on neurocognitive dysfunctions in iron-deficit patients also reported lower cognitive scores for those with low blood iron levels, including children taking standardized tests.
The best advice for aging adults is to consult with a doctor about the appropriate level of blood iron and ways to achieve and maintain that level through diet and, if needed, supplements.