Does Iron Deficiency Affect Cognitive Skills?





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In developing conclusive data from scientific studies, the best-case scenario is to have as many participants in the study as possible. In 1956, the US government passed legislation that would allow for a continuous statistical review of illness and disability and how they affect the population. This legislation resulted in the creation of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) whose goal is to collect and disseminate information on the health and diet of people living in the United States.

In this particular study, researchers wanted to know what, if any, relationship existed between iron deficiencies and cognitive abilities in children who are adolescents and younger. It has previously been known that iron deficiencies in infants can cause some developmental problems. However, no studies had been done to determine if these problems resulting from iron deficiency exist in older children.

Using data from the NHANES III study, researchers from hospitals in Rochester, New York examined data representing 5,398 children aged 6 to 16. The NHANES data provided information on iron status with several values identified. If any of the children were deficient in 2 or more of these values based on age and gender, then they were considered to be iron deficient. Researchers looked at iron deficiencies with and without anemia. Of the 5,398 children reviewed, three percent were found to be deficient in iron. Surprisingly, there a higher percentage was found to occur in girls, (8.7%).

Researchers then began looking at cognitive abilities and began comparing math scores between the children designated as having iron deficiencies and those who did not. The results of this investigation identified that those with iron deficiency had greater than twice the risk of scoring below average in math than those with normal iron status. This indicates that the cognitive problems resulting from iron deficiency are not limited to the infant population, but are identifiable in the adolescent population as well. The researchers determined that children at risk should be screened for iron deficiency both with and without anemia.1


1. Halterman JS, et al. Iron Deficiency and Cognitive Achievement Among School-Aged Children and Adolescents in the United States. Pediatrics. Jun 2001;6(107):1381-1386.