Anaemia in elderly patients should never be regarded as a normal physiological response to aging. Underlying causes must be investigated and treated in a similar manner to that used in younger adults. In addition to a thorough history and physical examination, basic investigations such as red cell indices and morphology, reticulocyte count, haematinic assays and occasionally bone marrow examination, will detect the underlying pathology in most cases.
Anaemia may be classified, according to red blood cell mean corpuscular volume, into microcytic, macrocytic and normocytic types. Anaemia with an absolute reticulocytosis is due either to acute blood loss or haemolysis. Other anaemias, more frequently encountered in elderly patients, are hypoproliferative, and reflect depressed marrow production or impaired erythroid maturation. Examples include anaemia of chronic disease and iron deficiency and, less commonly, megaloblastic anaemia and anaemia due to primary bone marrow failure.
The treatment of anaemia should aim to correct the underlying cause of the disorder and/or to improve the quality of the blood, e.g. by haematinic replacement therapy. Recombinant human erythropoietin has revolutionised the treatment of anaemia associated with chronic renal failure, while its role in other anaemias is currently under investigation. Regular blood transfusion may be required for some elderly patients with chronic anaemia. However, the attendant risks of this procedure, such as iron overload and viral hepatitis transmission, must be considered.