Healthy Solutions: Iron Deficiency anemia endangers many infants

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In a 1990 screening of infants six to 12 months old in US public health programs, approximately 216,000 were at risk of developing anemia because of low hemoglobin counts, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The anemia was apparently due to a lack of iron in the infants' diets.

Iron deficiency anemia can not only cause health problems, but can lead to reduced IQ scores five years later.

In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed a longstanding policy by recommending only breast milk and iron-fortified infant formulas for children during their first year of life.

Cow's milk is not recommended by the Academy for the first year of life, because milk reportedly promotes loss of iron in the stools of susceptible infants. In addition to being a poor source of iron, cow's milk is also high in calcium and phosphorus, which may interfere with iron absorption, causing gastro-intestinal bleeding which results in a loss of iron, according to the Academy.

In a study published in Pediatrics in 1989, Tomas Walter, MD, and colleagues at the University of Chile in Santiago, reported that iron deficiency anemia affects the learning and development of infants. The double-blind, placebo-controlled study followed 196 infants from birth to 15 months of age.

"Developmental test performance in infancy has now been conclusively demonstrated to be impaired in children with anemia due to iron deficiency," the researchers said. "Among anemic infants, both severity and duration of anemia were associated with poorer performance. The areas most clearly affected were those of language acquisition and proficiency in body balance and coordination development leading to the erect position and walking."

In another study, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, Betsy Lozoff, MD, and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland and other facilities, reported that "children who have iron-deficiency anemia in infancy are at risk for longstanding developmental disadvantages as compared with their peers with better iron status."

Parents were unduly alarmed in the fall of 1992 when Jukka Salonen, MD, and colleagues at the University of Kuopio in Finland, reported in Circulation that high iron levels double the risk of having a heart attack.

Since iron deficiency is a major problem for small children, the reports in the media alarmed many parents. Unfortunately, the lay press failed to report that the study involved middle-aged men, who are susceptible to iron storage. Dr. Salonen has since stated that the Finnish men in the study are generally not as healthy as their US counterparts.

Since then, two studies, reported at the American Heart Association conference in Santa Fe, NM, found no link between iron intake and heart attacks, according to Marjorie Shaffer in Medical Tribune.

Reprinted from Better Nutrition for Today's Living, August, 1993 issue.

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