A review of studies on the effect of iron deficiency on cognitive development in children

J Nutr. 2001 Feb;131(2S-2):649S-666S; discussion 666S-668S. doi: 10.1093/jn/131.2.649S.


Studies on the effect of iron deficiency on children's cognition and behavior are selectively reviewed, looking for evidence of a causal relationship. Most correlational studies have found associations between iron-deficiency anemia and poor cognitive and motor development and behavioral problems. Longitudinal studies consistently indicate that children anemic in infancy continue to have poorer cognition, school achievement, and more behavior problems into middle childhood. However, the possible confounding effects of poor socioeconomic backgrounds prevent causal inferences from being made. In anemic children <2 y old, short-term trials of iron treatment have generally failed to benefit development. Most longer trials lacked randomized placebo groups and failed to produce benefits. Only one small randomized controlled trial (RCT) has shown clear benefits. It therefore remains uncertain whether the poor development of iron-deficient infants is due to poor social backgrounds or irreversible damage or is remediable with iron treatment. Similarly, the few preventive trials have had design problems or produced no or questionable benefits only. For children >2 y old, the evidence from RCT is reasonably convincing but not conclusive. RCT of iron treatment are warranted especially in younger children.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Achievement
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / complications*
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / therapy
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Brain Stem
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Iron / deficiency*
  • Iron / therapeutic use
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Iron