Iron is used by the body to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen. Most people without underlying health conditions should be able to get enough iron from their diet.
But disrupting the balance can lead to a host of health implications: too little iron is associated with fatigue and impaired immune system, while too much can cause liver failure, and in high enough doses can even be fatal.
A number of studies show small changes in iron levels can have protective and detrimental effects on different diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and infections.
But the net effect of varying iron levels on life expectancy remains unclear.
In a recent study from Imperial College London, researchers found that having too much iron in the body puts your long term health at risk but it could also take years off your life.
They used large scale genetic data to assess the impacts across a population of having naturally raised levels of iron, in terms of years of life expectancy.
The findings add to the increasingly complex picture of iron’s role in our health and highlight the risks of having raised levels of iron.
The study is published in Clinical Nutrition. One author is Dr. Dipender Gill, from Imperial’s School of Public Health.
In the study, the team examined the effect of increasing levels of iron on health—using people’s genetic variation as an indicator of their iron levels.
They trawled genetic data from almost 49,000 people to find genetic variants linked to iron levels.
The researchers found that the genetic markers for higher iron levels on average associated with reduced life expectancy.
The analysis revealed that for every one point of standard deviation increase in genetically predicted serum iron above baseline, people had an estimated 0.7 fewer years of lifespan.
The current findings build on previous work to clarify that picture further, showing that people who have a genetic predisposition to slightly raised levels of iron in the body have reduced life expectancy on average.
While the team did not look directly at the impact of taking supplements, the results suggest that there is a need to better understand the health implications of people boosting their iron levels with supplements when they don’t need to.
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