Iron Levels May Affect Stroke and Dementia Risk

It's long been accepted that iron is a necessary nutrient for the body though the amount needed can change with an individual's age as well as gender. Now, there is evidence that iron can also have conflicting effects depending on whether a person is at risk for stroke and vascular dementia or for Alzheimer's disease.

The journal PLOS ONE reported on a study by Imperial College London researchers who have found evidence that iron deficiency may increase stroke risk by making the blood stickier. Stroke in itself often has debilitating results, but it can be the foundation for vascular dementia, as well.

Ischaemic stroke, which occurs because the blood supply to the brain is interrupted by small clots, is the most common type of stroke. Several studies in the past have shown that iron deficiency may be a risk for ischaemic stroke, however scientists didn't know why that was the case.

The Imperial College researchers have provided an answer to that question. They discovered that iron deficiency increases the stickiness of small blood cells called platelets. These platelets initiate blood clotting when they stick together. According to the article in PLOS ONE, a link between iron deficiency and sticky platelets was first discovered almost 40 years ago, but its role in strokes has been overlooked until now.

Dr. Claire Shovlin, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, said of the study: "Since platelets in the blood stick together more if you are short of iron, we think this may explain why being short of iron can lead to strokes, though much more research will be needed to prove this link. The next step is to test whether we can reduce high-risk patients' chances of having a stroke by treating their iron deficiency."

Excessive iron

Study results showing that excessive iron in the system may be a missing piece of the Alzheimer's puzzle were published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, was the senior author of this study.

Dr. Bartzokis and his colleagues found that excess iron can cause the tau and beta-amyloid proteins in the body to become toxic. They theorize that these toxic proteins then build up in the hippocampus region of the brain destroying tissue and disrupting signaling between brain neurons.

How much iron is enough but not too much?

Likely, how much any person requires of certain nutrients depends on each individual's unique chemistry. We can hope that reliable information about iron will soon be available to physicians so that they can balance patients' risk for stroke and eventual vascular dementia with their risk for Alzheimer's disease.

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Claire L. Shovlin, et al (2014, February 19) Ischaemic Strokes in Patients with Pulmonary Arteriovenous Malformations and Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia: Associations with Iron Deficiency and Platelets. Retrieved from

Kaiser, C. (2013, August 22) MedPageToday. Iron and Age, a Combo for Alzheimer's? Retrieved from Ahmed, A. (2013, August 21)

Excess iron linked to Alzheimer's disease. Aljazeera America. Retrieved from

Carol Bradley Bursack
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Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at