Adequate iron supply may improve cognitive performance

March 25, 2013

According to a new US study, an insufficient iron status of the body can impair cognitive functions, such as planning ability, in college women.

In the observational study, 42 healthy, non-anemic undergraduate women at auniversity provided a blood sample for measuring iron status (serum ferritin concentration) and completed a standardized cognitive test consisting of one manual task (a measure of central executive function) and five computerized tasks (a test of mental rotation, simple reaction time, immediate word recall and two-finger tapping) (1). Women’s body iron status ranged from 4.2 to 8.1 mg/kg. The study results showed that participants with higher iron levels showed a better performance on central executive function (higher planning speed) while the computerized cognitive tasks was not affected by body iron level.

The researchers commented that these findings contribute new information on the degree of iron deficiency associated with negative neuropsychological effects in non- anemic women of reproductive age. College women experience iron depletion at a higher rate than the general population of pre-menopausal women; therefore, it is important to investigate the impact of low iron status on cognitive function in this subgroup in whom optimal cognition is critical to academic success. Evidence of the relationship between iron status and neuropsychological function in young women is beginning to accumulate (2, 3). However, studies to date in women have found significant relationships only when iron-deficiency anemia was present.

Iron deficiency affects individuals of all ages and socio-economic classes but to a larger extent infants, children and women of reproductive age. The WHO estimates that anemia, the most severe form of iron deficiency, affects 30% of women of reproductive age. Iron-deficiency anemia has been observed in 16–18% of female university undergraduate students (4, 5). This population is of particular concern considering the cognitive demands of higher education. Iron deficiency manifests as alterations in cognitive function, behavior and mood (6).


  1. Blanton C. A. et al. Body iron is associated with cognitive executive planning function in college women. British Journal of Nutrition. 2013; 109(5):906–913.
  2. Khedr E. et al. Iron states and cognitive abilities in young adults: neuropsychological and neurophysiological assessment. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2008; 258:489–496.
  3. Murray-Kolb L. E. and Beard J. L. Iron treatment normalizes cognitive functioning in young women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 85:778–787.
  4. Pastides H. Iron deficiency anemia among three groups ofadolescents and young adults. Yale J Biol Med. 1981; 54:265–271.
  5. Sultan A. H. Anemia among female college students attending the University of Sharjah, UAE. J Egypt Public Health Assoc. 2007; 82:261–271.
  6. Beard J. L. and Connor J. R. Iron status and neural functioning. Annu Rev Nutr. 2003; 23:41–58.