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Lack of Iron May Cause Learning Disability

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In a study that may help to explain why boys tend to outsmart their female counterparts in math class by the time they reach high school, US researchers have found that iron deficiency may affect children's ability to understand math problems.

The study of nearly 5,400 children aged 6 to 16 years found that those who were deficient in iron were more than twice as likely to score below average on standardized math tests than their more well-nourished peers. Girls, who are at greatest risk for iron deficiency, were particularly vulnerable to the mineral's effect on learning, according to the report in the June issue of Pediatrics.

Iron is essential to the production of red blood cells, and deficiency in the mineral can lead to anemia, or having too few red blood cells. Most studies of learning and iron deficiency have focused on people with iron-deficiency anemia, and not the larger group of individuals who are iron-deficient but do not have anemia, the authors note.

The findings suggest that doctors should screen certain patients for iron deficiency, the researchers conclude.

``If these findings are confirmed, then screening for iron deficiency, particularly for those children without anemia, might be warranted for high-risk children,'' Dr. Jill S. Halterman of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, New York, told Reuters Health. ``It is possible that preventive iron supplementation, or treatment of those children who are affected, would prevent the potentially negative cognitive effects of iron deficiency.''

However, it is not yet clear whether learning problems can be corrected through iron supplementation, she added.

Halterman and colleagues explain that nutrition needs during a period of rapid growth, loss of blood due to menstrual periods and poor diets make adolescent girls susceptible to iron deficiency. Iron deficiency results in decreased iron stores in the brain, where it may affect enzymes and neurotransmitters that impact learning.

While the relationship between iron deficiency and learning problems in infants is well known, it is unclear whether the deficiency has the same effect on older children.

According to the study, 3% of children overall were iron-deficient, which translates into 1.2 million school-aged children nationwide. Nearly 9% of adolescent girls were found to be deficient in iron. Iron deficiency, even when it did not cause anemia, was associated with lower scores on tests.

For instance, the average math test score for children who were iron-deficient but not anemic was 87.4, compared with a score of 86.4 for children who were both iron-deficient and anemic and 93.7 for those who had adequate iron stores.

There were no significant differences in scores on reading tests, however. Halterman said it is not clear why iron deficiency affected only math test scores, adding that the effects of iron on the brain are not well understood.

Foods rich in iron include liver, oysters, tofu and legumes such as lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas.

SOURCE: Pediatrics 2001;107.

Reference Source 89


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