Public Release: 

Meals On Wheels Clients At Risk For Iron Deficiency

Penn State

University Park, Pa. --- Rural, homebound, elderly people, particularly women, who participate in Meals on Wheels Programs, are at risk for iron deficiency, a Penn State study has shown.

Dr. John L. Beard, professor of nutrition and leader of the study, says the meals that the people received were adequately designed by a professional nutritionist. However, one home-delivered meal a day was not enough to provide 100 percent of the recipients' daily needs, and their other food intake did not compensate.

The study, which was detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of Nutrition for the Elderly, also found that iron deficiency was more common among women than men, despite similar diets and overall health status. However, women who took iron supplements were protected.

The study's authors note "Iron supplementation is a viable solution to improving the iron status of the female recipients. Females who supplemented had higher iron stores compared to females who did not supplement. Thus, despite some previous literature that suggests iron malabsorption is prevalent in the elderly, modest dose supplements as used in this study can be an effective tool."

About 27 percent of the 56 study participants, who ranged in age from 61 to 91, were at or below the poverty level. Beard notes, "Iron is best absorbed from meat and, if you are on a limited budget, meat becomes a luxury food item. If we had to predict where deficiencies might appear, we would predict iron based on the lack of meat in their diet."

Only two of those studied, both women, were taking prescription drugs that could interfere with iron absorption. However, the participants were, in general, frail and ill, although not ill enough to require institutional support or assisted living.

Beard says that although the study did not evaluate functional impairments among the participants, iron deficiency has long been known to cause decreased cognitive and immune function, depressed physical endurance and less efficient temperature regulation.

Beard's co-authors on the paper, which is titled "Iron Nutrition in Rural Home Bound Elderly Persons," are Rebecca E. Richards, research associate; Helen Smiciklas-Wright, professor of nutrition; Valerie Bernardo, research associate; and Sue Kordish, who is affiliated with the Clearfield County Area Agency on Aging.

A broader program of evaluation of rural health in Pennsylvania is being conducted by Dr. Gordon Jensen, adjunct associate professor of nutrition, and Dr. Smiciklas-Wright.

EDITORS: Dr. Beard is at (814) 865-863-2917.

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