Symptoms of Anemia in Seniors and How to Treat It

Anemia is the most common blood condition in the United States. Approximately 10 percent of people in the United States over the age of 65 are actually anemic, according to the American Society of Hematology. Generally speaking, women are more susceptible to anemia than men. However, anemia is a potentially serious health condition for senior women and men. Senior women and men and caregivers of people in their Golden Years need to be aware of the symptoms of anemia.

When the subject of anemia is mentioned, many people shrug and think that it’s no big thing, something that can easily be corrected. Generally speaking, if anemia is caught early, it can often be corrected. However, time and again, older Americans and their caregivers overlook or ignore symptoms that suggest the onset of anemia.

The end results of chronic anemia among seniors include:

  • Heightened risk of losing physical abilities of different types
  • Functional decline
  • Increased risk of hospitalization
  • Higher risk of being admitted to a nursing home

In order to provide you with the tools you need to understand what anemia is, the symptoms of the condition, and how it might be treated, address several key topics in this article:

  • What is anemia?
  • Causes of anemia
  • Two most common types of anemia
  • Symptoms of anemia
  • Types of Anemia

What is Anemia?

Anemia is a condition in which a person lacks enough healthy red blood cells sufficient to carry adequate amounts of oxygen to tissues and organs throughout the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Anemia can be a short-term (acute) or a long-term (chronic) problem. The longer a person suffers from anemia, the more damage will occur, potentially resulting in one or another of the long-term consequences discussed at the beginning of this article.

How Is Anemia Confirmed?

If a person exhibits anemia symptoms, a simple blood test can determine whether or not he or she has the condition. Medically speaking, a determination as to whether or not a person is anemic is based on the hemoglobin level in the blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in the blood that carries oxygen to tissues and organs.

If the hemoglobin level in a woman is 12 grams per deciliter or less, she is anemic. If a man has 13.5 deciliters of hemoglobin or less, he also will be classified as having anemia.

Symptoms of Anemia

The most commonplace signs of anemia among older people (women and men over the age of 65) are:

  • Dizziness, feeling lightheaded or feeling like you are about to pass out
  • Fast or unusual heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Pain, including in your bones, chest, belly, and joints
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pale or yellow skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Tiredness, fatigue, or weakness

Sometimes when an older individual exhibits symptoms of actual anemia, those signs are chalked up to just being part of growing old. (As an aside, the growth rate of children with chronic or more long-term anemia can be impacted.)

Types of Anemia and Treatments

There are seven types of anemia, some more common and more dangerous than others. We discuss each of these different types of anemia in turn.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia among people 65 years of age and older. The mechanics of iron deficiency anemia are relatively simple. Hemoglobin is produced in bone marrow as part of the creation of new red blood cells. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin. Without adequate iron, sufficient amounts of hemoglobin cannot be produced, and a person becomes anemic.

Causes of this type of anemia include:

  • Blood loss (such as from heavy menstrual bleeding)
  • Stomach ulcer
  • Small bowel ulcer
  • Cancer of the large bowel
  • Frequent use of some pain relievers like aspirin

Identifying and treating the cause of this type of anemia can reverse the condition. In addition, iron supplements may be recommended.

Vitamin Deficiency Anemia

Iron is not the only nutrient needed to produce healthy red blood cells. A person also needs vitamin B-12 and folate. Dietary changes and the proper use of supplements usually are recommended courses of treatment for this type of anemia.

Anemia of Inflammation

Certain types of diseases can cause inflammation. In turn, this inflammation interferes with the proper production of red blood cells. When that happens, anemia can be a consequence.

Treating this type of anemia is dependent upon addressing the underlying disease that caused it in the first instance, when possible. Examples of diseases that can trigger anemia or inflammation include:

  • Cancer
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney disease
  • Chron’s disease
  • Other acute or chronic inflammatory diseases

Aplastic Anemia

Aplastic anemia is rare and life-threatening. This is another situation in which the condition that causes anemia in the first instance must be addressed. Examples of causes of aplastic anemia include:

  • Infections
  • Certain medications
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals

Anemia Associated With Bone Marrow Disease

There are different types of diseases of the bone marrow that cause anemia. These types of diseases or conditions range from mild to life-threatening Two of the most common types of diseases or conditions are leukemia and myelofibrosis. Both of these can impact red blood cell production, resulting in anemia.

Hemolytic Anemias

This represents a group of anemias that develop when red blood cells are destroyed faster than a person’s bone marrow is able to produce new cells. Hemolytic anemias can develop later in life (including when people are over 65) or can be inherited.

Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a type of hemolytic anemia that warrants special mention. It is inherited. Sickle cell anemia is caused by a defective form of hemoglobin. It causes red blood cells to be abnormally shaped, like a crescent or sickle. These irregularly shaped red blood cells die prematurely. This results in a shortage of blood-carrying red blood cells and anemia.

You best protect yourself against the consequences of anemia by having a regular blood panel, including screening for hemoglobin levels. This particularly is the case if you have experienced anemia previously. Your doctor can arrange for this test.