Low Iron Doesn't Add Up for Kids

Math scores suffer when kids, particularly girls, have iron deficiency, study says

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HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, June 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Iron could make a difference in your child's math scores, new research shows.

Schoolchildren who weren't getting enough iron were more than twice as likely as their peers to score below average on standardized math tests, say scientists at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. The difference was most pronounced with teen-age girls. Iron is found in meats, green vegetables, eggs, whole grains and nuts.

"All we've shown from this study is that there's an association between iron deficiency and math scores. It's likely that this is one contributing factor that is very correctable," says Dr. Jill Halterman, lead author of the study.

She adds her group is planning a second study in which they will take a group of iron-deficient children, give half of them iron supplements and half a placebo, and then test them several months later to see whether their math skills improve.

Dr. Martin W. Sklaire, former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on school health, calls the findings interesting, but he says it has long been known that iron affects general school performance.

"It's valuable in that it shows poor performance in one subject," he notes of the study. "It shows the importance of a good diet for schoolchildren."

But he wonders if other dietary factors might also have been at play: "It would be nice to get a more complete dietary history" for the children, he says.

In Halterman's study, researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III 1988-1994, a large-scale national survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Of the 5,398 children who had been tested for both iron levels and math skills, 3 percent had iron deficiency, either with and without anemia. Iron deficiency was relatively low in children between the ages of 6 and 11, but it spiked to 8.7 percent for girls between the ages of 12 and 16. Researchers attribute that to poor nutrition habits among teen-age girls and the start of menstruation. Scores from standardized tests were compared among the children, and the study found those with iron deficiencies had lower math scores.

The study suggests that iron, or lack of it, may be why boys often surpass girls in math scores in high school and college, Halterman says.

As a matter of fact, that was one of the reasons researchers decided to investigate a possible connection in the first place, Halterman says.

Although there has been a great deal of research on the cognitive fallout from iron deficiencies in very young children, the effect of low iron on older children has been less clear, she says.

"Traditionally, girls may not be as interested in math in high school, college or as a career. This may be one reason why they're not doing as well," she explains.

One curious thing the study found was that low iron levels did not affect reading test scores.

"It's not clear at this point why it would be math, and not something else," Halterman says.

She adds that there are currently no standardized screening tests for iron deficiency or anemia among schoolchildren in this country. Children are only tested if a problem is suspected. But once a child becomes iron-deficient, dietary changes alone don't suffice, she says. "They usually need supplements."

Sklaire notes that more standardized screening would be more costly, so "it needs to be defined further to see whether it's of value in screening."

Statistics show that about 51 million children currently attend American schools.

What To Do

Make sure your child's diet contains enough iron, Halterman says. Kids need to eat meats, green vegetables and grains to keep their iron levels normal. And fast food rarely has much iron in it, she adds. Vitamin supplements also help build up iron levels.

For help in trying to improve your teen's nutritional habits, go to family.com.

For more on child nutrition, check out the special Food Guide Pyramids for children of various ages, from the American School Food Service Association.

Or you might want to read these HealthDay articles on nutrition for children.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jill Halterman, M.D., General Academic Pediatric Fellow, University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, N.Y.; Martin W. Sklaire, M.D., F.A.A.P, clinical professor, pediatrics, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., and former chairman, American Academy of Pediatrics' section on school health; June 4, 2001, Pediatrics

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