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Causes of Anemia by Robert Emmons

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Until I went back to school a couple of years ago, any time I saw or heard the word ‘anemia’, I assumed it was a disease involving the blood. It turns out I was wrong and it isn’t a disease at all, but a condition in which the body has fewer red blood cells than it needs.  This condition could be caused by disease, but that is just one of many different ways a person can develop it. In this article, we will explore the various ways a person can develop anemia.

While I was wrong about anemia itself being a disease, diseases are one of the major causes of it.  HIV, Crohn’s disease and many forms of cancer can interrupt the production of red blood cells, causing anemia. A couple are summarized here.

  • Sickle cell disease causes the shape of the blood cells to be irregularly shaped due to the development of a different type of hemoglobin molecule. This not only causes red blood cells to carry less oxygen, but it also causes the blood cells to die prematurely due to the cells not being able to slide past one another in the bloodstream, causing more friction, and resulting in premature rupture/death of the cells. This disease is passed down genetically through generations.
  • Leukemia can slow/prevent red bone marrow from producing red blood cells.
  • Diseases of the blood itself can cause premature cell destruction. These diseases belong to a group called the hemolytic anemias.  Hemoglobin SC disease is one example.
  • A lack of iron in the body is also a major cause of anemia. Iron is needed to produce hemoglobin for proper red blood cell development. Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body.  A diet lacking iron could be one cause of this deficiency, which is easily resolved with a diet change. The body may also have physiological problems absorbing iron into the body due to disease.
  • Celiac disease, prohibits the intestines from properly taking in nutrients. As a result, iron cannot be absorbed and anemia can result.

Another cause of anemia, specific to women, is blood loss due to heavy periods. Women who lose a lot of blood during their period subsequently lose iron because it is stored inside the red blood cells. With enough blood loss, anemia can occur.

Similar to iron deficiencies, vitamin B-12 is another deficiency that can cause anemia. Vitamin B-12, like iron,  is needed to produce red blood cells. This problem is most common in poorer countries because the populations tend to eat less meat, which is a major source of B-12. In more developed countries, vitamin B-12 is often added to commercially processed flour, helping people who don’t pay much attention to their diet get it into their system regularly.  Like iron, it is also possible that a person’s body cannot process the vitamin even if they are getting plenty of it in their diet.  Surprisingly, according to the CDC, 1 in 31 adults under the age of 51 show signs of vitamin B-12 deficiency.

Lastly, one of the deadliest forms of anemia is fortunately also one of the rarest: aplastic anemia. Occurring in only two to six people per million, this not fully understood type results in the bone marrow not producing enough red blood, white blood, and platelet cells due to the bone marrow’s stem cells being damaged. Conditions that cause this type of anemia can be genetic or acquired and the causes for it are often not known.





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