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Iron May Be a Plus for Math

Posted by on January 14, 2013

Health Deficiency hurts test scores, especially with teen girls, a study says.
By Lindsey Tanner
The Associated Press Chicago

New research linking even mild iron deficiency with low test scores could help explain why teenage girls tend to do worse than boys in math.

The study found that compared with children with normal iron levels, iron deficient youngsters were more than twice as likely to score below average on a standardized math test. The increased risk was found even in iron-deficient children who had not developed anemia.

The difference in performance was most striking in adolescent girls, who also had the highest prevalence of iron deficiency.

The study was led by Dr. Jill Halterman of the University of Rochester and was published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Iron deficiency, sometimes due to blood loss or diets low in iron, is the most common cause of anemia. Adolescent girls are especially prone to iron deficiency because of their monthly blood loss from menstruation.

Previous research has linked iron-deficiency anemia with lower developmental test scores in young children, but there is less information on older children and on iron deficiency without anemia.

“Past studies have shown a superiority of females in math achievement during elementary and middle school years and a reversal of this trend with male superiority in high school and college years,” the researchers said. “This study suggests that iron deficiency may contribute to this gender discrepancy by negatively affecting math performance among adolescent girls.”

The study involved nationally representative data on 5,398 children ages 6 to 16 who participated in a health survey from 1988 to 1994.

Iron deficiency was found in 3 percent of the children overall, representing 1.2 million school-age children. It occurred in 8.7 percent of the girls ages 12 to 16, including 7 percent without anemia.

Average math scores for iron-deficient children with or without anemia were about six points lower than those with normal iron levels. Among adolescent girls, the difference in scores was more than 8 points.

The average math score for normal youngsters was 93.7, 87.4 for iron-deficient children without anemia and 86.4 for those with anemia.

The findings suggest that giving girls more iron could improve their math performance, Halterman said.

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