Anemia Symptoms and Treatment in Seniors


It’s normal for seniors and elderly adults to feel tired from time to time – who doesn’t? Life catches up with you and the fatigue that comes with it can hit at any time of day, leaving you wondering how you’ll possibly make it to bedtime. But if fatigue has become a constant companion, you might be dealing with something beyond “normal aging.” You may be experiencing anemia.

According to the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute, anemia is “a condition that develops when your blood produces a lower-than-normal amount of healthy red blood cells.” Why does this matter? Red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of your body. When you have anemia, your body isn’t getting enough oxygen to the body’s tissues, which can leave you with a host of symptoms, starting with fatigue and weakness.

About three million people in the United States have anemia[1]. After the age of 50, the rate of anemia tends to go up – the journal Blood reports that 10% of women and 11% of men over the age of 65 are anemic, and more than 20% of those over the age of 85 have the condition.  Mild anemia is relatively common and can usually be treated easily with changes in diet.

If you’re suffering from anemia or any other condition that leaves you feeling weak and dizzy, you might be at a higher risk of falls. The CDC reports that one in every four elderly adults suffers at least one fall per year, and about 20% of those seniors will suffer a serious injury as a result of that fall. This usually includes fractures (sometimes major ones) and head injuries. In fact, falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries and hip fractures.

A medical alert device can certainly help elderly adults avoid the more serious consequences that can occur if you fall while you are alone. Many elderly people wind up languishing on the floor after a fall, unable to get up and perhaps even unable to move. They need help – but they can’t move to the phone or even the door to call for assistance. Lying on the floor for extended periods of time after a fall can lead to very bad health outcomes[2].

An emergency response solution is key to ensuring that the outcome from a fall injury is the best it can possibly be. Pressing the button on a medical alert pendant or wristband quickly gets help to you. You don’t have to worry about lingering on the floor in pain and worry when help is literally at your fingertips.

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s true not only for fall prevention, but for overall health as well – including spotting and treating anemia. Here’s everything seniors need to know about this condition.

The Basics of Anemia

Anemia occurs more often than you might think, as it can be associated with many health conditions. The symptoms often mimic other conditions, so anemia is diagnosed with a blood test known as a Complete Blood Count, or CBC test. This is a common test that you’ve probably had many times in the past.

The CBC looks at a variety of factors regarding your white and red blood cells. But what your doctor will be most interested in concerning anemia is the hemoglobin level. For men, a typical level of hemoglobin should be in the 14 to 17 gm/dL range. For women, it’s typically in the range of 12 to 15 gm/dL. Anything that falls below that range is considered anemic[3].

Anemia usually has several tell-tale signs. But you might not notice them right away because they can be very mild, or they can be associated with other common conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can include:

·         Fatigue

·         Weakness

·         Headaches

·         Irregular heart rate

·         Shortness of breath

·         Pale skin

·         Dizziness or feeling lightheaded

·         Cold hands and feet

·         Chest pain

Since the lack of oxygen caused by anemia can affect everyone differently, there can be other symptoms as well, such as vision problems, confusion, lower blood pressure, restless leg syndrome, hair loss, and even the desire to eat ice[4].

Types of Anemia

Anemia can be acute or chronic. Acute anemia often occurs when something else is going wrong in the body; for instance, stomach bleeding can quickly lead to anemia, as can any other type of sudden blood loss. Chronic anemia occurs gradually and might have no clear-cut reason. Acute anemia is often spotted right away in conjunction with whatever other illness is occurring. Chronic anemia is sneaky in that the body can adapt to lower hemoglobin over time, so it might not be diagnosed for quite some time.

According to Better Health While Aging, a “severe” level of anemia occurs when the hemoglobin level drops to 6.5 to 7.9 gm/dL. Anything less than 6.5 gm/dL is life-threatening. But for most people, a hemoglobin level that low would have you in the doctor’s office very quickly and getting the appropriate treatment right away.

There are a few different types of anemia. The most common include[5]:

·         Iron-deficiency anemia. This very common form of anemia happens when your body is not getting enough iron to create red blood cells. To treat this form of anemia, it’s important to determine why it’s happening. In the elderly, it might be caused by internal bleeding, some cancers, and inflammation of the stomach lining due to certain medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

·         Vitamin-deficiency anemia. Not getting enough folate or vitamin B12 can lead to a lack of red blood cells. Some people do get enough of those vitamins but have trouble absorbing B12. This type of anemia might be known as pernicious anemia. One in every three people who have anemia has a deficiency of folate, or vitamin B12[6].

·         Hemolytic anemia. When red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be replaced, you might have hemolytic anemia. There are many potential causes, including infections, inherited blood conditions, autoimmune conditions, bone marrow problems, and some medications. This type of anemia is relatively rare.

You might have more than one type of anemia at the same time, such as a lack of iron and a lack of B12. Your doctor can do further blood tests to find out exactly what you’re lacking and how to treat it.

Treatment of Anemia

When you are diagnosed with anemia, the first step is to figure out what’s causing the problem. Sometimes it can be obvious – for instance, someone undergoing cancer treatment is likely to develop anemia at some point, and those who have certain blood conditions might already know they are prone to anemia. But in some cases, the situation isn’t as obvious. For instance, someone might get plenty of iron in their diet but their body simply doesn’t hold onto it like it should – this sort of anemia could sneak up on you and be determined by a ferritin test, which looks at the levels of iron in your blood.

Once the doctor has determined what is causing the anemia, treatment can begin. Here are some common treatments (these could vary depending upon the type of anemia)[7]:

·         Supplements. This is the go-to solution for anemia treatment. Supplements of iron and B12 are commonly prescribed for anemia.

·         Changes in diet. A diet that is full of healthy foods that contain iron, folate, and B12 is usually recommended.

·         B12 injections. For those who don’t readily absorb B12, shots of the vitamin might be required.

·         Blood transfusions. This can help those who don’t produce enough red blood cells or those who have lost significant amounts of blood after an injury or illness.

·         Avoiding certain medications. Some medications can lead to anemia, such as those that suppress your immune system. Though in some cases these medications can’t be avoided (such as those who must have chemotherapy for cancer treatment), your doctor can review your medical history to see what medications you can go without.

·         More targeted treatments. Those who have conditions like sickle cell anemia or thalassemia might have many other treatments available to them, tailored to their specific health challenges.

Staying Safe When Weak and Tired

Anemia can bring levels of fatigue and weakness that make it hard to complete your daily activities. You might want to stay in bed and sleep all day! Even when you are up and moving around, the fatigue can make you slower and the weakness can make you unsteady on your feet. It’s vitally important to be as careful as possible when walking around, but sometimes all the care in the world can’t stop a fall.

To this end, Alert1 Medical Alert Systems offers a medical alert system with fall detection that can be a lifesaver in the event of a fall emergency. While you can always press the button on a medical alert pendant at any time to get help on the line, our fall detection system works on your behalf by automatically alerting our trained professionals at the first indication that a fall has occurred.

If you are feeling weak and tired, it’s time to check in with your doctor and figure out why. Anemia is often under-diagnosed in senior adults and might even be considered a “normal” part of aging – but in 80% of older adults, there is a clear cause that can be treated[8]. Get in touch with your doctor today if you are showing any concerning symptoms. And get in touch with Alert1 too, so you can have the peace of mind that anytime you need help, you’ve got a safety net right there at your fingertips.