11 Facts About Anemia

David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0
David Gregory & Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

Anemia is so pervasive that the word anemic has become synonymous with a lack of vitality, substance, or flavor. But anemia symptoms go beyond the common signs of pallor and fatigue. The disorder is characterized by a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the body that arises from a variety of underlying conditions—some that are serious and others that are barely noticeable. Anemia causes can even include pregnancy, poor diet, and cancer in rare cases. Here are some more facts worth knowing about anemia symptoms and treatments.

1. The most common type is iron deficiency anemia.

The body needs iron to produce hemoglobin—the protein that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body—and when it doesn’t get enough of it, iron deficiency anemia can develop. Vitamin deficiency anemia works in a similar way. The vitamins B12 and folate are also essential to producing healthy red blood cells, and deficiencies in either vitamin can contribute to anemia. Patients may be lacking iron, B12, or folate because they’re not getting enough of the vitamins or mineral from their diet, or because their body has trouble absorbing them, either due to gastrointestinal surgery, a genetic disorder, or some other issue. In contrast, sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition in which malformed hemoglobin can't carry enough oxygen, causing blood cells to take on a crescent shape and impede blood flow.

2. Even mild anemia symptoms should be taken seriously.

There are roughly 400 different anemia causes. Some are relatively benign, like not including enough leafy greens in your diet, while others are more serious, like blood cancers or aplastic anemia, a condition that develops when bone marrow stops producing red blood cells at a healthy rate. Mild anemia may be one of the first signs of a serious condition that impedes your blood cell production, so even if the symptoms of the anemia itself are manageable, it shouldn’t be brushed off as nothing.

3. Anemia is Greek for lack of blood.

Put simply, someone with anemia doesn’t have a healthy amount of red blood cells or hemoglobin in their bloodstream. The word is a Latinized version of the Greek word anaimia, which means lack of blood (an meaning "without" and haima meaning "blood").

4. The fatigue comes from a lack of oxygen.

Even with a healthy respiratory system, the tissues of people with anemia may not get enough oxygen—a phenomenon known as hypoxia. This can lead to symptoms like headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. While these symptoms can be debilitating in patients with severe anemia, they may be mild or even nonexistent in people with less severe cases. The signs are also hard to measure and can overlap with those of several chronic conditions, which means mild anemia often goes undiagnosed.

5. Anemia compels some people to chew ice.

Constantly craving an ice cube to chew on may be a sign your blood is at anemic levels. Pica is the medical term for the compulsion to chew substances devoid of nutritional value, like ice, dirt, and paper, and it's one of the more distinctive symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Doctors still aren't entirely sure why the craving afflicts so many anemic patients. One explanation is that ice calms inflammation in the mouth that sometimes comes with iron deficiencies, while additional research suggests that chewing on ice is one way for fatigued people to stay alert.

6. It’s diagnosed with a simple blood test.

Though the symptoms can be tricky to identify, testing for anemia is simple once a doctor suspects a patient has it. After taking a sample, doctors calculate the complete blood count, or CBC, which measures the percentage of red blood cells (a measurement called the hematocrit) and hemoglobin in a patient’s blood. By looking at red blood cell and hemoglobin percentages specifically, they can determine if the patient’s blood is healthy or anemic. The typical adult man has blood with 40 to 52 percent red blood cells (the rest is plasma), and for the typical adult woman, it’s 35 to 47 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic.

7. Anemia is more common in developing nations.

Approximately 25 percent of the world population—almost 2 billion people—is affected by anemia. In about half of these cases, iron deficiency is the root cause. Anemia is more common in developing parts of the world where malnutrition is also rampant, while in the U.S., just under 6 percent of the population is anemic. In the U.S., the prevalence of anemia varies by group: Women, elderly people, African Americans, and Latino Americans are all more likely to have it, with black women between ages 80 and 85 developing the condition at rates 6.4 times higher than the national average, according to a 2016 study. The majority of anemia cases around the world are moderate or mild, and at those levels the lack of healthy blood cells itself doesn’t pose significant health risks (though an underlying disease that's causing it might).

8. Anemia also has a surprising benefit.

Having a low amount of iron in your body has an unexpected effect: It makes it harder for infections to develop. Most bacteria depends on iron to gain strength and spread throughout a host, and in the bodies of people with iron deficiency anemia, bacteria has a greater chance of dying before it multiplies into a dangerous infection. Studies have shown that people with low iron counts have a smaller risk of contracting malaria, tuberculosis, and certain respiratory conditions. Iron deficiency anemia can also boost survival rates in patients with HIV and lower the risk of cancer (like bacteria, cancer cells need iron to grow). Denying pathogens iron is such an effective way of killing them that our bodies naturally slow iron production when they detect an infection.

9. Pregnant people are more likely to have anemia ...

People who are pregnant have a much higher risk of becoming anemic. According to the World Health Organization, anemia affects over 40 percent of pregnant women worldwide. The bodies of pregnant women naturally produce about 20 to 30 percent more blood to supply oxygen to the baby, but it isn’t always enough for the mother to maintain healthy red blood cell and hemoglobin levels. Anemia is especially common during the second and third trimesters when the baby needs the most blood. Pregnant patients with anemia are usually prescribed iron supplements to prevent birth defects and complications during delivery.

10. … and so are vegetarians.

Many people get their iron by eating meat like beef, chicken, pork, and shellfish. Without meat in their diet, people have a greater chance of developing iron deficiency anemia: A small Indian study published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Science found that approximately 60 percent of vegetarian women were anemic. But it is possible to consume healthy amounts of iron while adhering to a meat-free diet. In addition to dietary supplements, legumes, dried fruits, and leafy greens are great sources of the mineral.

11. Anemia treatments range from vitamins to blood transfusions.

Treatments for anemia vary depending on the cause of the condition. For iron deficiency anemia, the most common variety, doctors usually prescribe iron supplements as well as a diet rich in the foods mentioned above. Daily folic acid tablets and B12 shots—starting once every other day and transitioning to once a month—may also be prescribed to patients deficient in either vitamin. In cases when red blood cell and hemoglobin counts dip into dangerous territory, more drastic treatments like blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants may be necessary.

6 Dreaded Tasks That Are Actually Great For Managing Stress

iStock.com/gilaxia
iStock.com/gilaxia

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can wreak havoc on your body. (According to a recent study on middle-aged adults, stress not only impairs memory but may even cause the brain to shrink!) Thankfully, some commonly dreaded activities can help reduce your frazzled state.

1. Washing the Dishes

According to a 2014 study published in the journal Mindfulness, a “mindful” approach to dishwashing could reduce stress. “A sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experience recall,” the study states. “Mindful dishwashers evidenced … increases in elements of positive affect (i.e., inspiration) [and] decreases in elements of negative affect (i.e., nervousness)." In other words, with the right mindset, zoning out in front of a sudsy sink is basically Nirvana.

2. Decluttering Your Home

Research suggests that clutter is more likely to stress out women. In 2010, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked to see how married couples dealt with (and felt about) messy homes [PDF]. “The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day,” Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi wrote in The New York Times. "Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the days.” So tidy up!

3. Exercising In A Group

Working out can feel like a chore, and exercising with a group can be a tad embarrassing—especially if you’re not on the same fitness level as everybody else. But according to research in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, exercising with a group is more beneficial at reducing stress than working out alone. “Researchers found that working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent,” according to the press release. Go ahead and book that spin class!

4. Sniffing Your Partner’s Laundry

No sane person puts “sniff your significant other's dirty socks” on their to-do list, but perhaps they should. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that sniffing a loved one’s clothes can reduce stress. In the study, 96 women sniffed one of three scents—a neutral smell, their romantic partner’s scent, or the scent of a stranger. The stranger’s smell caused cortisol to spike. But their partner’s smell? It reduced stress.

5. Dwelling On Your Failures

The title of this study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in 2018, says it all: “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress.” According to the study, “[W]riting about a previous failure may allow an individual to experience a new stressor as less stressful, reducing its physiological and behavioral effects.” It sounds paradoxical, but the next time you're facing a crazy situation, just reflect on a time when it all went wrong—and things might not feel so bad.

6. Singing For All to Hear

For the shy and tone-deaf, singing in a group might be a anxiety-fueled nightmare—but they should try it anyway. A pilot study presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference last year showed that, in people with Parkinson's disease, singing in a group can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. (Researchers cautioned that this is preliminary data.) The findings jibe with a 2016 study from Drexel University that found, no matter your skill level, making art usually reduces cortisol levels [PDF].

Nearly Half of American Adults Don't Know Their Own Blood Type

iStock.com/nzphotonz
iStock.com/nzphotonz

If you know your blood type, you’re better off than nearly half of Americans. Of the 1004 adults in the U.S. who answered a recent Quest Diagnostics survey, only 57 percent said they knew whether they have type A, B, AB, or O blood.

This is roughly the same number of people who could recall their childhood phone number (55 percent), the survey revealed. By comparison, 74 percent of respondents remembered their lengthy Wi-Fi password, and 75 percent knew how much money was in their bank account.

For many, other personal health information was even murkier. Fewer than two in five people knew their cholesterol or blood sugar levels. Considering that these details provide important insights into one’s risk for certain diseases, survey administrators said this is a cause for concern.

“With consumers increasingly engaged in their own and their loved ones’ health care, it’s critical that they ‘know their numbers’—and have those numbers readily accessible—to ensure productive communication with their healthcare provider for both routine and critical care,” Cathy Doherty of Quest Diagnostics said in a press release.

With the exception of emergencies, at which time you may receive a universal donor's O-negative blood, doctors will almost always conduct blood typing and cross-matching tests to determine your blood type and identify minor antigens in your blood before conducting a transfusion or surgery.

It’s still important to know your blood type for other reasons. Newborn babies, for example, can develop hemolytic disease if their Rh blood type (meaning whether it's positive or negative) doesn’t match their mother's. And depending on your blood type, you may also have an increased risk for blood clots, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even severe diarrhea and mosquito bites.

If you know your blood type, you’re also in a better position to donate blood and help people in need if there’s a natural disease or emergency, or if blood banks simply have a low supply. O blood tends to be the highest in demand (and O-positive is the most common blood type), but blood banks may issue public notices from time to time if they need a particular type.

If you’re unsure of your blood type, clinical labs like Quest Diagnostics offer blood type tests. You can also order test kits online from Amazon.

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