MONDAY, April 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If taking a simple iron pill each day could give you a boost of brain power, wouldn't you do it?
For women who are iron deficient or anemic, iron supplements may help improve mental sharpness.
That's the upshot of a Pennsylvania State University study presented in Washington, D.C., on Monday at Experimental Biology 2004, an interdisciplinary meeting of independent scientists.
The study shows that even modest levels of iron deficiency have a negative effect on memory, attention, and learning in young women and that taking iron supplements can reverse the impact.
"With iron supplementation, we were able to improve their cognitive functioning," said lead author Laura Murray-Kolb, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State's department of nutritional sciences.
The study is the first to systematically examine the impact of iron supplementation on the mental performance of women in their childbearing years, investigators said.
Murray-Kolb believes the findings have great implications because of the worldwide prevalence of iron deficiency, affecting more than 2 billion people. In the United States, 11 percent of women in their childbearing years are deficient in iron, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People need iron to make hemoglobin, the substance that helps red blood cells carry oxygen to the brain and throughout the body. When the blood lacks sufficient hemoglobin, anemia can occur, causing weakness, fatigue, and other symptoms.
While there are many types of anemia, iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type. Women often become anemic because of blood loss from heavy periods or insufficient iron in the diet.
Since iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia are relatively common in women of childbearing age, older infants, toddlers, and teenage girls, these individuals should be screened periodically to check their iron status, the National Institutes of Health recommends.
Iron insufficiency and anemia, beyond making women feel tired, can rob them of sharp mental performance, the Penn study shows.
"Women need to know this actually is affecting their brain and the way they're thinking," said Murray-Kolb.
The study involved 149 women who were either iron sufficient, iron deficient, or anemic. Each completed a series of eight different computerized tests to measure attention, memory and learning.
On baseline testing, the women who were iron deficient or anemic performed significantly worse than iron sufficient women of the same age. What's more, anemic women took longer to perform the tasks.
Next, each woman was randomly given either a 60-milligram iron pill or a placebo. After four months, the 113 women remaining in the study repeated the cognitive tests. Those who took iron pills were later able to perform just as well as the iron-sufficient group.
Differences in performance and speed were small but significant, researchers observed.
Murray-Kolb suggests that iron deficiency has a cumulative affect on women's ability to function. "On any one given task, you may not see a huge difference between an anemic women and an iron sufficient women, but we do many tasks during the day," she says.
According to federal dietary guidelines, women of childbearing age need 18 milligrams of iron daily, the amount typically included in a woman's multivitamin. Pregnant women, who need 27 milligrams a day, may take an iron supplement or a prenatal vitamin with iron to meet their higher iron requirements.
To prevent anemia, nutritionists recommend choosing iron-rich foods, like red meat, beans and peas, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, whole grain breads, and fortified cereals.
"All too often, anemia is considered an abnormal lab value rather than a serious medical condition," saidDr. Lawrence Tim Goodnough, co-chair of the National Anemia Action Council.
Both iron deficiency and anemia are conditions for which evaluation and treatment is mandated, he added.
The U.S. government also has targeted the problem aspart of its national health prevention agenda, Goodnough noted. By 2010, it hopes to reduce the proportion of young children and women of childbearing age with irondeficiency and to lower the percentage of low-income women in their third trimester of pregnancy who areanemic.
Another study presented at the same meeting Monday suggested that curry may protect the brain.
Researchers from Italy and New York Medical College found that, when given to rats, curcumin -- the substance that gives curry its color -- activated an enzyme that prevents oxidation in the brain.
Scientists are looking into whether curry could be used as a barrier against Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders.