Senior Health: Anemia & Warning Signs To Look Out For

Seniors with anemia can have two times the risk of declines in physical health, affecting their longevity and independence. Knowing what signs to look for can help keep you and your caregivers on top of your residents' health, keeping them thriving in your home much longer.

Who said the Iron Age is over? It most certainly is not. Our seniors need iron just as much if not more than any building.


Iron is a vital nutrient for the human body. When a person is iron deficient the medical diagnosis is called anemia.

While not the only cause of anemia, it is perhaps the most known cause.

What does iron do for the body? One of the key duties iron has in the body is helping red blood cells carry oxygen to the various tissues throughout the body.

Essentially, iron works to make sure the human body’s organs have the oxygen necessary for optimal functioning.

When iron is deficient in the body, tissues do not receive the oxygen needed for optimal functioning, which can result in various disorders or diseases.

Believe it or not, anemia is common in older Americans.

Approximately 10% of seniors living independently have anemia. As seniors age, the condition becomes even more prevalent.

Here are a few other underlying anemia causes:

  • Internal Bleeding
  • Medication Usage
  • In women, menstruation, and childbirth
  • Iron Deficiency caused by multiple conditions
  • Vitamin Deficiency, especially low B12.
  • Bone Marrow Deficiency (where red blood cells are manufactured)
  • Chronic Kidney Disease
  • HIV/AIDS, Lupus, Cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s disease
  • Hemolytic anemia – destruction of red blood cells

Anemia is easily detectable. There are prevailing signs and symptoms. There are also lab tests which can be used to confirm anemia as well.


Anemia comes with some very discernible signs and symptoms. Due to a decrease in oxygen throughout the body, anemia may be noticed throughout various body functions. These include:

  • Fatigue
  • Generalized weakness
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Sustained Headache
  • Paleness of skin
  • Low Blood Pressure, especially if caused by internal bleeding

Laboratory tests are quite capable of quickly providing evidence of anemia.

These tests, one known as a Complete Blood Count (CBC), can give physicians sufficient evidence to understand the degree to which anemia is affecting an elderly patient.


The causes of anemia are numerous, as listed above, but the effects of anemia are detrimental to seniors. Research has shown that anemic seniors have a greater instance of:

  • Loss of physical strength
  • Increased hospitalizations
  • Higher admissions to nursing homes
  • Significant functional decline (ADLs)

It is imperative that anemia be recognized, diagnosed and treated properly for the overall health and well being of seniors.


Now let’s dive a little deeper to understand some of the more serious health issues surrounding this condition.

By understanding the main causes, caregivers will be able to keep a closer watch for anemia and get their seniors the treatment and nutrition necessary to thwart it.

Anemia can manifest quickly or can be chronic. It depends on the underlying cause.

If a significant blood loss occurs, either internally or externally, anemia can manifest quickly. A senior can be sitting and chatting normally; then, suddenly, extreme fatigue, weakness, dizziness or even a fall can occur. This is acute anemia brought on by rapid blood loss.

Conversely, if a senior suffers from a chronic condition, known or unknown, anemia can slowly emerge. Iron deficiency can occur insidiously due to:

  • Ulcers
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Cancer
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency or Folate, while not common are causes

According to the American Society of Hematology, approximately 10 percent of American seniors are anemic.

It is also imperative to understand the side effects of medications often prescribed to seniors. These may also cause chronic anemia.

  • Hypertension Medications
    • ACE inhibitors
    • ARBs (angiotensin-receptor blockers)
  • Certain antibiotics
  • Anticonvulsants (Seizure medication used for both seizure control and other conditions)

Common cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy deteriorate bone marrow, which is where red blood cells are created. Thus, anemia will more than likely result.


By addressing nutritional deficiencies in seniors, the reduction in iron can be corrected without medication or in conjunction with it.

Low iron is the most well-known cause of anemia but is more common in younger individuals. However, when iron deficiency occurs in seniors it is most likely due to gastrointestinal bleeding or absorption issues in the intestines.

When diagnosed, it needs to be treated swiftly with either nutritional enhancement, supplementation, or both.

It is important to take note of symptoms associated with too much iron, especially if supplementation is being used to treat it. These include:

  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Heart/Joint Damage

Many of these side effects are thwarted by taking supplements with food. The absorption is more aligned with the body’s ability to naturally absorb iron from nutrition.

FYI: Iron and calcium supplements should not be taken concomitantly; calcium inhibits iron absorption in the intestinal tract.
Integrating iron-rich foods into seniors’ diets is optimal. Foods such as:

  • Red meat
  • Eggs with the yolk
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Whole Grains

Integrating these into a senior’s diet on a daily basis provides a great way to naturally acquire much needed iron.

Folate deficiencies, commonly diagnosed alongside anemia, can be addressed as well nutritionally. Include in your senior’s diet:

  • Raw Greens
  • Cooked Greens
  • Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts and/or Cauliflower
  • Fresh fruit
  • Certain dairy products
  • Whole Grains


When anemia is caused by a chronic disease or treatment, a plan of action must be enacted.

If the anemia is caused by a chronic disease, which will not go away, then anemia treatment should be integrated alongside chronic medical treatment, especially if both the disease and the treatment will exacerbate the condition.

Again, knowing the underlying cause determines the best way to treat anemia.

Be prepared to get labs completed throughout the duration of the underlying condition so that anemia is properly treated to optimize the senior’s life.

Remember, Anemia is common.

It is also very treatable. However, many seniors go undiagnosed and their health suffers drastically.

Independence, a most valued treasure among seniors, is compromised if not completely lost due to anemia.

Be mindful, watchful, and act accordingly if any signs or symptoms emerge in your residential assisted living home among your residents.


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