Donate Blood — The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Reader Contribution by Ellen Sandbeck

A couple of weeks ago I suddenly realized that my husband Walt hadn’t donated blood in a while, so when he got home, I talked him into it. Later that very evening, by sheer coincidence (really, I had nothing to do with it!) the Blood Bank called and wanted him to donate, so he made an appointment. Great minds think alike, I guess.

Long ago, before we had kids, Walt and I used to donate blood together, but the last time I went in to donate, I tested borderline anemic, and after that, childbirth, motherhood, and various things no one really wants to know about, have kept me perpetually low on blood. So no more donating for me. This is not unusual: premenopausal women are quite commonly a bit low on blood.

The situation is quite different for healthy adult males and postmenopausal women, however. Many healthy adults who are not losing blood regularly, in one way or another, end up with blood that is actually too iron-rich, and this can cause quite serious health problems. (This overabundance of richness in the blood is probably not a normal state for any humans: in hunting societies, men were very likely to be injured fairly regularly, thus lowering their blood iron levels. This is how our species evolved, and the way our bodies are meant to work.) This is why I try to remind Walt to donate blood on a regular basis — I’d much rather he lost blood in a planned and controlled fashion at the blood bank rather than by going out and having periodically spaced accidents.

So, if you are a healthy adult male, or a healthy post-menopausal woman, and you do not regularly participate in a blood-letting sport such as boxing or bicycling in city traffic, here are some of the reasons that it might be a good idea for you to donate blood:

Women lose blood and lower their blood iron levels every time they menstruate, while men in their twenties begin storing iron in their body tissues. According to Victor Herbert, M.D., a hematologist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the average adult male stores about 1,000 milligrams of iron in his body, while the average premenopausal woman’s body stores only 300 milligrams of iron. Men’s risk of heart attack begins rising while they are in their twenties, while the average woman’s risk of heart attack only rises after she goes through menopause.

A 1998 Finnish study found that men who donated blood at least once a year had an 88% lower risk of heart attacks than nondonors.

A 1999 study in Montreal showed that rats who were fed an iron-rich diet for 12 weeks showed a significant increase in blood cholesterol levels when compared with control rats who were fed a normal diet.

“Metabolic syndrome” now affects 25 percent of adults in Western countries. This syndrome is defined as the presence of at least three of the following: elevated blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, elevated serum triglycerides, elevated plasma glucose, and abdominal obesity. This syndrome is closely linked to insulin resistance and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and it also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.  A study conducted at Johns Hopkins showed that people who had the highest blood iron levels were the most likely to have metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, and the risk levels increased as the blood iron levels increased.

A 2005 study conducted at the University Hospital of Girona, Spain, investigated the relationship between iron stored in the body and insulin sensitivity. The researchers compared insulin sensitivity between men who had donated blood between 6 months and 5 years before the study, with control subjects who matched in every other physical way (age, body size, body mass index, cardiovascular risk profile, blood pressure, blood lipids, smoking status) but who had never donated blood. They found that frequent blood donors had better insulin sensitivity, decreased insulin secretion, and significantly lower amounts of iron stored in their bodies than did the nondonors.

Plus, consider this note from the friendly folks at the Iron Disorders Institute: “Excess iron in vital organs, even in mild cases of iron overload, increases the risk for liver disease (cirrhosis, cancer), heart attack or heart failure, diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, hypothyroidism, hypogonadism, numerous symptoms and in some cases premature death. Iron mismanagement resulting in overload can accelerate such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s, early-onset Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.” And a few of the symptoms that can be caused by iron overload: “…chronic fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain, irregular heart rhythm, loss of interest in sex, hair loss, depression…” According to the Iron Disorders Institute, the treatment for iron overload is iron reduction therapy, iron chelation, or donating blood on a regular basis.

When you donate blood, the life you save could be your own.

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