Purpose: Iron deficiency anemia is commonly caused by chronic gastrointestinal blood loss, and a thorough examination of the gastrointestinal tract has become standard practice. In contrast, iron deficiency without anemia has hardly been studied, and its causes are less certain. The aim of the present study was to determine the diagnostic value of upper and lower gastrointestinal evaluation in elderly hospitalized patients with iron deficiency, irrespective of the hemoglobin level.
Patients and methods: In a prospective study, 151 consecutive elderly patients with iron deficiency (serum ferritin level < 50 microg/L at two separate occasions) were investigated using esophagogastroduodenoscopy with colonoscopy (n = 90) or barium enema (n = 61).
Results: A potential upper gastrointestinal tract lesion was found in 47 (49%) of the 96 anemic patients and in 31 (56%) of the 55 nonanemic patients (P = 0.38). Nonanemic patients had a greater prevalence of erosive gastritis or duodenitis. Anemic patients (72%) were more frequently investigated with a colonoscopy than nonanemic patients (38%, P = 0.001), and a lower gastrointestinal lesion was found in 32% of the anemic patients and 16% of the nonanemic patients (P = 0.03). Cancer was the most common lesion in the colon; 11 of the 18 patients were asymptomatic. Site-specific symptoms, fecal occult blood loss, and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) were not associated with the detection of gastrointestinal lesions. In 9.5% of the patients with a benign upper gastrointestinal lesion, a synchronous colonic tumor was found.
Conclusion: Elderly patients with iron deficiency should undergo endoscopic examination, irrespective of the hemoglobin level. The presence of gastrointestinal symptoms, a positive fecal occult blood test, and the use of NSAIDs are of limited value in guiding the diagnostic procedure.