Young women’s performance at work or university could be held back by low levels of iron in the blood, suggests a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition. Low iron levels affect up to a third of girls and young women in the UK, with clinical iron deficiency seen in up to one in ten.
The trial, on 127 American women aged 18 to 35 years of age, measured blood markers of iron status such as haemoglobin, transferrin saturation, ferritin, transferrin receptor as well as total body iron. The women then took part in a battery of mental function tests which involved memory and rapid responses.
The results showed that, even though the women would not be diagnosed as ‘iron deficient’, markers of iron in the blood were sub-optimal and corresponded to poor performance in several cognitive tasks. For example, worse iron status was associated with lower attention, more variation in reaction times, and less effective planning abilities.
The authors concluded that markers of mild iron deficiency were having a detrimental effect on executive functioning in healthy young women, which could have implications for daily life.
Commenting on the study, Dr Carrie Ruxton from the Health Supplements Information Service said: “Poor iron status is common in women and girls, probably due to low intakes of red meat and breakfast cereals and a greater need for iron in women of child-bearing age. This new study is very worrying as it shows that even mild iron deficiency has a negative effect on mental performance, potentially limiting how well women and girls can function at work, school or university.
“UK surveys show that more than a fifth of women and 45% of teenage girls have dietary iron intakes that fall below the minimum recommendations for normal health. As well as eating more red meat, green leafy vegetables, beans, pulses and breakfast cereals, girls and women would benefit from taking a daily multivitamin supplement which contains iron at recommended levels”.
- Scott SP et al. (2016) Iron status Is associated with performance on executive functioning tasks in nonanemic young women. J Nutr 146: 30-7.
- Bates B et al. (2014) National Diet and Nutrition Survey, rolling programme years 1-4. London: FSA/PHE.