Course Case Studies

Anemia in the Elderly

Course #99083 - $25 • 5 Hours/Credits

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    • Review your Transcript to view and print your Certificate of Completion. Your date of completion will be the date (Pacific Time) the course was electronically submitted for credit, with no exceptions. Partial credit is not available.
Learning Tools - Case Studies


Patient H is a white woman, 89 years of age, who resides in a skilled nursing facility. She is being evaluated due to an Hgb level of 8.1 g/dL. She is ambulatory with a rolling walker, generally alert, and oriented with some mild cognitive impairment. She is compliant with medical treatments and takes medications as prescribed. Her medical history is positive for congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic kidney disease, and osteoarthritis. She is oxygen dependent on 2 L/minute per nasal cannula. She is bright and outgoing and verbalizes multiple vague physical complaints.

During her last hospitalization, one year ago for pneumonia, the nephrologist and pulmonologist told Patient H there was not much else that could be done for her. Despite the poor prognosis, her multiple medical conditions stabilized and she completed a rehabilitation program. She enjoys participating in activities and has developed friendships with some other residents. Over the past year, she has been treated for multiple infections, including bronchitis and multiple urinary tract infections.

Patient H's chief complaint is of feeling tired and short of breath at times. She also complains of arthritic pains in her neck and hands. Review of systems is notable for hearing loss, dentures, glasses, and dyspnea, mostly with exertion. She has occasional palpitations of the heart and orthopnea at times. Her bowel movements are regular, and she has not noticed any blood in the stool. She has 1+ chronic edema of the legs, which is about usual for her. She has not had a mammogram for five years, and she has not had a dual energy x-ray absorptiometry scan, colonoscopy, or other preventive care recently.

Patient H's record indicates an allergy to sulfa drugs and penicillin. She also has completed advance directives (a do not resuscitate order and a living will). She is taking the following medications:

  • Amlodipine besylate (Norvasc): 5 mg/day

  • Calcium carbonate (OsCal) with vitamin D twice daily

  • Polyethylene glycol powder (Miralax): 17 g in 8 oz liquid daily

  • Furosemide (Lasix): 40 mg/day

  • Escitalopram (Lexapro): 20 mg/day

  • Prednisone: 10 mg/day

  • Omeprazole (Prilosec): 20 mg/day

  • Cinacalcet (Sensipar): 30 mg/day

  • Simvastatin (Zocor): 20 mg at bedtime

  • Tiotropium oral inhalation (Spiriva): 1 cap per inhalation device daily

  • Vitamin B12: 1,000 mcg twice daily

  • Enteric-coated aspirin: 81 g/day

Upon physical examination, Patient H appears well-nourished and groomed. She is mildly short of breath at rest but in no apparent pain or distress. She is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 156 pounds. Her vital signs indicate a blood pressure of 132/84 mm Hg; pulse 72 beats/minute; temperature 97.4 degrees F; respirations 20 breaths/minute; and oxygen saturation 94% on 2 L/minute. Her oropharynx is clear, and her neck is supple. There is no lymphadenopathy. The patient is hard of hearing and wears glasses for distance and reading.

Patient H's heart rate is slightly irregular, with a soft systolic ejection murmur. Evaluation of her lungs indicates diminished breath sounds in the bases with no adventitious sounds. Abdomen palpation finds it to be soft and non-tender, with active bowel sounds and no signs of hepatosplenomegaly. As noted, Patient H has 1+ pitting chronic edema and vascular changes to lower extremities. There are no active skin lesions. Neurologic assessment shows no focal deficit. Extremity strength is rated 4 out of 5. A mini-mental status exam is administered, and the patient scores 22/30, indicating mild cognitive impairment.

Blood is drawn and sent to the laboratory for CBC and a basic metabolic panel. The results are:

  • Leukocytes: 5,700 cells/mcL

  • RBC: 3.02 million cells/mcL

  • Hgb: 8.1 g/dL

  • HCT: 25.2%

  • MCV: 83 fL

  • MCH: 26.5 Hgb/cell

  • MCHC: 32%

  • RDW-CV: 15.8%

  • Platelets: 150,000 cells/mcL

  • Glucose: 82 mg/dL

  • Blood urea nitrogen (BUN): 34 mg/dL

  • Creatinine: 1.4 mg/dL

  • GFR: 38 mL/minute/1.73 m2

Patient H is in no apparent distress at present, but she appears to have anemia, as evidenced by the low Hgb. She has chronic kidney disease (stage 3), which may be contributing to the anemia. Further laboratory evaluation is necessary to determine the etiology of the anemia and to determine if specialty referral to gastroenterologist or hematologist is necessary. The clinician orders an iron profile, vitamin B12 and folate levels, reticulocyte count, and stool for occult blood. The results of this testing are:

  • Vitamin B12: 1,996 pg/mL

  • Folate: 9.9 mcM

  • Ferritin: 20 ng/mL

  • Serum iron: 26 mcg/dL

  • Unsaturated iron binding capacity: 216 mcg/dL

  • Total iron binding capacity: 242 mcg/dL

  • Transferrin saturation: 11%

  • Reticulocyte count: 1%

  • Stool for occult blood: Negative (three samples)

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is excreted in urine, so a high level is generally not significant. The folate level is sufficient, while the ferritin level is considered low-to-normal. The iron profile shows a low level of iron in the blood; this may be caused by gastrointestinal bleeding or by inadequate absorption of iron by the body. Patient H has medical conditions that can cause elevated cytokines, which would interfere with iron absorption. If her ferritin level was high, which it is not, it would suggest AI/ACD. Therefore, the patient appears to have anemia secondary to chronic kidney disease.

Prior to initiating treatment with an ESA, the patient is evaluated for a history of cancer, as these agents may cause progression/recurrence of cancer. Before writing the prescription for darbepoetin alfa, the clinician signs the ESA APPRISE Oncology Patient and Healthcare Professional Acknowledgement Form to document discussing the risks associated with darbepoetin alfa with the patient. The lowest dose that will prevent blood transfusion is prescribed.

The multidisciplinary team works with Patient H to develop a treatment plan. It is determined that treating the anemia will improve the patient's quality of life. The patient is prescribed ferrous sulfate 325 mg twice daily. Because vitamin C facilitates iron absorption, the iron can be given with a glass of orange juice or other citrus juice (not grapefruit). Iron must not be given with calcium, milk products, and certain medications as they can interfere with absorption. The patient should be monitored for the development of constipation and the need for stool softeners. In addition, darbepoetin alfa 40 mcg is prescribed, to be administered subcutaneously every week. This requires significant monitoring. Hgb and HCT should be measured on the day patient is to receive the injection, and the drug should be held if the Hgb is greater than 11.5 g/dL. If a current Hgb level is unavailable, the drug should not be given.

Blood pressure should be measured twice daily after treatment with darbepoetin alfa is initiated. Staff must also monitor for symptoms of a deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolus (e.g., unilateral edema, cough, and/or hemoptysis). Daily exercise is encouraged to help reduce the risk of a blood clot.

After one month, Patient H has received darbepoetin alfa weekly for four weeks. She is also taking the ferrous sulfate and a stool softener. The review of systems is unchanged from the previous evaluation. The physical examination is also unchanged aside from a 1-pound weight loss. No new complaints or problems are reported. A review of the patient's vital signs shows a blood pressure of 130/80 mm Hg; pulse 78 beats/minute; temperature 97.8 degrees F; and oxygen saturation 97 on 2 L/minute. Her Hgb levels over the last month have improved:

  • Week 1: 8.4 g/dL

  • Week 2: 9.2 g/dL

  • Week 3: 9.6 g/dL

  • Week 4: 10.1 g/dL

No side effects as a result of the darbepoetin alfa are observed. Patient H's blood pressure remains stable, with no signs or symptoms of a blood clot.

The clinician orders the weekly monitoring of Hgb and HCT to continue with the darbepoetin alfa held if the Hgb is greater than 11.5 g/dL. If the medication is held more than once, the clinician will re-evaluate the dosage and frequency. The patient may only need the injection once or twice a month after the anemia is stabilized. The clinician also reduces the patient's vitamin B12 supplement to daily (rather than twice daily) and reduces her prednisone dose to 5 mg/day.


Patient H's initial complaint was of shortness of breath and fatigue. These symptoms may have been related to the anemia or may have been a chronic complaint secondary to her congestive heart failure and COPD. The decreased hematocrit level is likely contributing to the patient's symptomatic heart failure. By exploring her condition further, it was determined that treating the anemia might improve the patient's quality of life and prevent the necessity for more extreme interventions (e.g., blood transfusion). Patient H was informed of the potential side effects of darbepoetin alfa and agreed to take it to prevent transfer to the hospital for blood transfusion.

The patient's condition was monitored closely, with weekly blood draws for Hgb. Her blood pressure remained stable, and no signs of complications were detected. Her shortness of breath and fatigue improved as the treatment progressed and her Hgb level rose above 10 g/dL. This allowed her to be more active and to remain in her home with familiar caregivers.

For patients with terminal or end-stage conditions, treatment of anemia can restore or preserve their quality of life. Treating problems that could potentially cause suffering, while avoiding futile care, is the goal for patients with a life-limiting condition. Anemia affects the quality of life in elders by causing fatigue, poor endurance, and shortness of breath, and alleviating these symptoms can allow for more activity and comfort.

Learning Tools - Case Studies


Patient P is a white man, 92 years of age, who resides in an assisted living facility. He uses a motorized scooter for mobility but is able to ambulate short distances with his rolling walker. He requires assistance with medication administration and attends community meals three times a day. His daughter visits once a week and assists with laundry and transports to medical appointments.

Patient P is brought to the primary care clinic by his daughter. She states that he is very fatigued and is not performing his usual daily tasks. He sleeps more than is usual and has to be coaxed to attend the community meals. At times, he has refused to take medications that the staff attempt to administer. The patient minimizes his symptoms saying, "What do you expect? I'm 92 years old." Patient P's medical history is positive for Parkinson disease, hypertension, COPD, osteoporosis, compression fracture to the lumbosacral spine, and weight loss. He is a widower and reports no tobacco use and rarely drinking beer or wine. His chief presenting complaints are fatigue, shortness of breath, chronic back and leg pain, and poor appetite.

On review of systems, the patient is noted to be hard of hearing and wearing a hearing aid. Vision is adequate with correction. He wears dentures and denies pain or difficulty with mastication. He has difficulty swallowing large pills, and his caregivers crush his medications. He states his appetite is not good; he has lost 15 pounds over the last year. Patient P denies chest pain, but complains of shortness of breath. This occurs when he exerts himself and often when he lays down. He has a regular bowel movement every one to two days and denies nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. He has not had dyspepsia but does state he does not seem to be able to eat as much as he used to (early satiety). He complains of nonradiating pain in his lower back. All other review of systems is non-contributory. Patient P has previously been tried on antiparkinsonian medications and osteoporosis medications that were discontinued due to unacceptable side effects. He is currently taking the following medications:

  • Atenolol (Tenormin): 25 mg twice daily

  • Vitamin D3: 1,000 units/day

  • Calcium carbonate: 500 mg three times every day

  • Vitamin B12: 1,000 mcg/day

  • Amlodipine (Norvasc): 10 mg/day

  • Omeprazole: 20 mg/day

  • Multivitamin daily

  • Tiotropium oral inhalation (Spiriva): 1 cap per inhalation device daily

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol): 650 mg three times daily routinely

  • Stool softener twice daily

  • Tramadol (Ultram): 50 mg every six hours as needed

Upon physical examination, Patient P appears frail but well groomed; he is in no apparent distress. He is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 134 pounds. His vital signs indicate a blood pressure of 110/64 mm Hg; pulse 82 beats/minute (regular rate and rhythm); temperature 97.8 degrees F; respirations 22 breaths/minute; and oxygen saturation 91% on room air.

As noted, the patient is hard of hearing with hearing aid and wears glasses. There is no evidence of lymphadenopathy or carotid bruit. His oropharynx is clear. His lungs are clear to auscultations, with diminished air flow in lung bases. The abdomen is soft and non-tender, not distended, with bowel sounds active in four quadrants. There is no hepatosplenomegaly. Extremities are clear of edema. Vascular changes are noted on both legs, and the toenails are thickened. The patient displays dry, flaky skin of lower extremities. Tenderness is noted over the lumbar spine with palpation. Disuse atrophy is noted to the extremities. Chronic skin lesions are also present, with actinic keratoses on the nose and forehead. Neurologic assessment reveals fine resting tremor of both hands and flat affect. Strength is equal bilaterally with strong hand grasps. Gait and balance are unsteady.

The clinician orders Patient P's medical records and diagnostics from previous care providers. She also requests a CBC with differential, a complete metabolic profile, and thyroid studies. A home health care evaluation is also recommended to determine if rehabilitation services would be appropriate. Patient P's laboratory studies indicate:

  • Leukocytes: 5,400 cells/mcL

  • RBC: 2.95 million cells/mcL

  • Hgb: 8.7 g/dL

  • HCT: 26%

  • MCV: 88 fL

  • MCH: 29.4 Hgb/cell

  • MCHC: 33.3%

  • RDW-CV: 13.7%

  • Platelets: 289,000 cells/mcL

  • Glucose: 77 mg/dL

  • BUN: 20 mg/dL

  • Sodium: 139 mEq/L

  • Potassium: 4.5 mEq/L

  • Chloride: 104 mmol/L

  • Carbon dioxide: 27 mmol/L

  • Creatinine: 0.9 mg/dL

  • Calcium: 8.8 mg/dL

  • GFR: Greater than 60 mL/minute/1.73 m2

  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone: 2.88 mIU/L

The low RBC, Hgb, and HCT indicate that the patient has a normocytic, normochromic anemia. However, blood-loss anemia is not ruled out by lack of microcytosis. If the blood loss is recent, changes to the cells may not yet be evident. The RDW-CV is normal, which may indicate a lack of erythropoietic response. Further laboratory evaluation is indicated.

The clinician requests an iron profile, ferritin level, folate level, vitamin B12 level, reticulocyte count, and stool for occult blood. The results of this testing are:

  • Vitamin B12: 1,006 pg/mL

  • Folate: 17.2 mcM

  • Ferritin: 246 ng/mL

  • Serum iron: 38 mcg/dL

  • Total iron binding capacity: 197 mcg/dL

  • Transferrin saturation: 27%

  • Reticulocyte count: 1.2%

  • Stool for occult blood: Negative on two samples, mildly positive on third sample

These findings indicate the patient is not deficient in vitamin B12 or folate. The serum iron is low while the ferritin level is high, suggesting adequate iron stores that are not being utilized by the body. This is a diagnostic indicator of anemia of chronic inflammation. The total iron binding capacity is low, showing that the blood's ability to bind transferrin with iron is reduced. Patient P has signs of a "mixed" anemia, the result of both ACI and gastrointestinal blood loss. Elderly patients often have more than one etiology contributing to the anemia, and all the possible causes should be thoroughly evaluated.

One of the stools for occult blood is positive, which may be representative of intermittent gastrointestinal bleeding. The clinician refers the patient to a gastroenterologist for further diagnostic evaluation. An endoscopy and colonoscopy should be performed if the patient and healthcare surrogate are willing. He is also prescribed a 5% lidocaine patch to be applied to his lower back in the morning and to be removed at bedtime.

Patient P visits a gastroenterologist, who performs an endoscopy and a colonoscopy. He is found to have several polyps in the large intestine, which are removed and biopsied during the colonoscopy. He tolerates the procedures well and has no adverse effects. The polyps are found to be benign.

One month later, Patient P returns to the clinic for follow-up. His review of systems is unchanged, although he reports improvement in his lower back pain. His vital signs are all stable. A CBC is completed to monitor the anemia, and the results are:

  • Leukocytes: 5,600 cells/mcL

  • RBC: 3.36 million cells/mcL

  • Hgb: 9.6 g/dL

  • HCT: 29.7%

  • MCV: 88.0 fL

  • MCH: 28.7 Hgb/cell

  • MCHC: 32.5%

  • RDW-CV: 14.9%

  • Platelets: 262,000 cells/mcL

Patient P's RBC, Hgb, and HCT have improved slightly. The RDW-CV has also increased, indicating an improved erythropoietic response. The removal of the colon polyps, which may have been causing some intermittent bleeding contributing to the anemia, appears to have improved the patient's condition. Patient P is instructed to return in one month for additional follow-up.


Patient P is a frail, elderly patient with multiple medical problems. From a primary care perspective, it is important to identify any new or existing medical problems that can be treated and improved. Elderly persons often present with multiple vague complaints that do not point to any one disorder. Laboratory evaluation is crucial to narrow down the diagnostic differential.

Because there is an upward trend in the CBC values, the necessity of a blood transfusion is reduced. However, if the anemia worsens, a hematology consult may be necessary. At 92 years of age, the patient is at risk for myelodysplasia, but if present, lower values of leukocytes, RBCs, and platelets would be expected.

While the use of an ESA might result in an improvement in elderly patients, there are multiple side effects and precautions associated with their use. For Patient P, they should be avoided unless truly necessary to prevent the need for transfusions.

  • Back to Course Home
  • Participation Instructions
    • Review the course material online or in print.
    • Complete the course evaluation.
    • Review your Transcript to view and print your Certificate of Completion. Your date of completion will be the date (Pacific Time) the course was electronically submitted for credit, with no exceptions. Partial credit is not available.