Nearly four out of every 10 teen girls and young women in the US have an iron deficiency, which can lead to low energy and brain fog, a new study published in JAMA found.
To conduct the study, researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School analyzed blood test data collected over the last 20 years from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With 40%t of American females aged 12-21 likely having an iron deficiency, those rates shot up for those who had low-BMI, were low-income, and identified as black and Latina.
The research also found that one in every 17 females in the studied age group have low enough iron levels to be diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, which can have a great impact on one’s health if not treated properly.
The most concerning part of these statistics is that the majority of girls and women who have dangerous low levels of iron are not aware as the symptoms are common for other disorders. Standard health screenings for their age groups do not require a ferritin test, which measures iron levels.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, cold extermities, hair loss, brittle nails, cognitive issues like brain fog, decreased athletic performance, shortness of breath, junk food cravings, headaches and sleep disorders.
The ferritin test is typically run most consistently on toddlers, people who are pregnant or those who have a long list of symptoms associated with anemia.
The CDC recommends anemia screening for female adolescents, who are not pregnant, and women every five to 10 years.
“Iron deficiency is an under-recognized problem with adverse impacts, but its symptoms and even those of anemia are normalized in young females,” lead author Dr. Angela Weyand, a pediatric hematologist, said in a press release.
“Why are we not screening for a condition that is highly prevalent, easily diagnosed, easily treated and associated with serious symptoms and increased risk of death if not addressed?”
The doctor also suggested that medical professionals normalize discussing menstrual bleeding and a healthy period flow. She noted that many teens and young women may be unaware that they are experiencing abnormally heavy periods that might contribute to a drastic iron loss.
Menstruation is a common risk factor, although a quarter of the girls who have yet to begin their periods were diagnosed with an iron deficiency, the study showed.
Dr. Rachel Bercovitz, a hematologist and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News that a period could be considered heavy “if you’re changing your pad or tampon more often than every four to six hours, or if you have to sleep on a towel or use overnight pads plus period underwear because you leak.”
“There are significant consequences especially in the adolescent age cohort where fatigue and poor concentration can lead to poor school performance,” she said. “And poor athletic performance can lead to changes in how girls think about exercise.”
Researchers hope that the findings will encourage medical professionals to order more ferritin tests for young female patients and recommend them to incorporate more iron-rich foods to their diet, such as leafy green vegetables, eggs, beans, meats and seafood.