Iron deficiency, elevated erythropoietin, fibroblast growth factor 23, and mortality in the general population of the Netherlands: A cohort study

PLoS Med. 2019 Jun 6;16(6):e1002818. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002818. eCollection 2019 Jun.


Background: Emerging data in chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients suggest that iron deficiency and higher circulating levels of erythropoietin (EPO) stimulate the expression and concomitant cleavage of the osteocyte-derived, phosphate-regulating hormone fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23), a risk factor for premature mortality. To date, clinical implications of iron deficiency and high EPO levels in the general population, and the potential downstream role of FGF23, are unclear. Therefore, we aimed to determine the associations between iron deficiency and higher EPO levels with mortality, and the potential mediating role of FGF23, in a cohort of community-dwelling subjects.

Methods and findings: We analyzed 6,544 community-dwelling subjects (age 53 ± 12 years; 50% males) who participated in the Prevention of Renal and Vascular End-Stage Disease (PREVEND) study-a prospective population-based cohort study, of which we used the second survey (2001-2003)-and follow-up was performed for a median of 8 years. We measured circulating parameters of iron status, EPO levels, and plasma total FGF23 levels. Our primary outcome was all-cause mortality. In multivariable linear regression analyses, ferritin (ß = -0.43), transferrin saturation (TSAT) (ß = -0.17), hepcidin (ß = -0.36), soluble transferrin receptor (sTfR; ß = 0.33), and EPO (ß = 0.28) were associated with FGF23 level, independent of potential confounders. During median (interquartile range [IQR]) follow-up of 8.2 (7.7-8.8) years, 379 (6%) subjects died. In multivariable Cox regression analyses, lower levels of TSAT (hazard ratio [HR] per 1 standard deviation [SD], 0.84; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.75-0.95; P = 0.004) and higher levels of sTfR (HR, 1.15; 95% CI 1.03-1.28; P = 0.01), EPO (HR, 1.17; 95% CI 1.05-1.29; P = 0.004), and FGF23 (HR, 1.20; 95% CI 1.10-1.32; P < 0.001) were each significantly associated with an increased risk of death, independent of potential confounders. Adjustment for FGF23 levels markedly attenuated the associations of TSAT (HR, 0.89; 95% CI 0.78-1.01; P = 0.06), sTfR (HR, 1.08; 95% CI 0.96-1.20; P = 0.19), and EPO (HR, 1.10; 95% CI 0.99-1.22; P = 0.08) with mortality. FGF23 remained associated with mortality (HR, 1.15; 95% CI 1.04-1.27; P = 0.008) after adjustment for TSAT, sTfR, and EPO levels. Mediation analysis indicated that FGF23 explained 31% of the association between TSAT and mortality; similarly, FGF23 explained 32% of the association between sTfR and mortality and 48% of the association between EPO and mortality (indirect effect P < 0.05 for all analyses). The main limitations of this study were the observational study design and the absence of data on intact FGF23 (iFGF23), precluding us from discerning whether the current results are attributable to an increase in iFGF23 or in C-terminal FGF23 fragments.

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, we found that functional iron deficiency and higher EPO levels were each associated with an increased risk of death in the general population. Our findings suggest that FGF23 could be involved in the association between functional iron deficiency and increased EPO levels and death. Investigation of strategies aimed at correcting iron deficiency and reducing FGF23 levels is warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / blood*
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / diagnosis
  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / mortality*
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Cohort Studies
  • Erythropoietin / blood*
  • Female
  • Fibroblast Growth Factor-23
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / blood*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortality / trends
  • Netherlands
  • Population Surveillance* / methods


  • Biomarkers
  • EPO protein, human
  • FGF23 protein, human
  • Erythropoietin
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors
  • Fibroblast Growth Factor-23

Grant support

This work was supported by the Dutch Kidney Foundation (Kolff senior postdoc grant to MHDB, Grant Number 17OKG18). The funder did not influence the design, development, analysis, or interpretation of the current study, nor did it contribute to the current manuscript.