- According to recent research published in the journal Nature Communications, excess iron in the blood speeds up age-related damage and disease, such as heart disease and dementia.
- However, athletes are often at risk for low levels of iron—which is also harmful to your body and can result in injuries.
- Red meats, beans, tofu, spinach, kale, shellfish, potatoes, pumpkin seed, broccoli, quinoa, turkey, fortified breakfast cereals, and hemp seeds are all high in iron.
If you feel like some people seem to age faster than others, it’s not your imagination. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications found that the rate at which our bodies age does differ, putting some at higher risk sooner for age-related issues like heart disease and dementia.
The reason? It could come down to your iron levels, researchers suggest. And more of the mineral is not always better.
Looking at information from three large public datasets, researchers studied about 60,000 long-lived people, and in examining their genes, found that genes related to iron were significantly represented.
“DNA variations that are known to predispose people to have higher blood iron levels also appear to accelerate the rate at which those people experience age-related diseases,” lead researcher Paul Timmers, Ph.D., of the University of Edinburgh’s Medical Research Council Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine, told Runner’s World. “This establishes reasonably strong evidence for a causal link between blood iron levels and aging. Basically, excess iron in the blood speeds up age-related damage.”
Iron plays many roles in the body, he added, including inside red blood cells to bind oxygen and transport it through the bloodstream. But when there’s too much, it can be very reactive and damage healthy cells, Timmers said. Over time, this can cause disease.
Genetic variation can determine how much iron your body absorbs, and how efficiently it transports and stores that iron. But genetics aside, Timmers added that understanding your iron levels could be helpful.
Even though high iron levels can cause damage, so can low levels, and athletes are often at risk for the latter, according to dietitian Shena Jaramillo, R.D. Physical endurance exercise, like running, puts increased demand on the muscles, and if you don’t replace the lost iron, you may begin showing signs of anemia like weakness and fatigue, she told Runner’s World.
Longer term, you may be at higher risk for injuries and even organ damage. This type of anemia lowers oxygen levels in the body and causes the heart to work harder.
The situation can be even more pronounced for those who are restricting calories and avoiding high-fat foods like red meat, which are typically highest in iron, she said.
Fortunately, food choices can go a long way toward getting your iron levels up, said Jaramillo. She suggests red meats, beans, tofu, spinach, kale, shellfish, potatoes, pumpkin seed, broccoli, quinoa, turkey, fortified breakfast cereals, and hemp seeds.
If you’ve incorporated foods like these into your diet and you’re still feeling symptoms of iron deficiency—pale skin, weakness, inflammation of the tongue, brittle nails, cold hands and feet, shortness of breath—then check with your doctor and get your iron levels checked before starting on supplements.