Understanding Hemochromatosis And Iron Overload

2009-07-23 | |
Last updated: 2009-07-23

Now widely considered the most common genetic disorder of Northern Europeans, hereditary hemochromatosis (HH) or iron overload disorder is a condition in which the body absorbs and retains up to 3 times the normal levels of iron that it should. While low levels of iron have long been associated with nutritional deficiencies, the effects of high levels of iron within the body were less noticeable. However, based on research culminating over the last 5 years, the number of people affected by this condition is now estimated at 1 in 250 for the population at large and 1 in 200 for those of Northern European descent.

What Are The Health Risks Of Untreated Hemochromatosis?

When untreated, hemochromatosis causes a number of serious health problems including chronic fatigue, cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, irregular heart beats, heart failure, arthritis and diabetes. The condition causes damage to organs from the accumulation of iron within the tissues and additionally from the high levels of iron free radicals or reactive compounds that cause chemical damage. Without treatment, this accumulation of iron eventually causes organ failure and as a result, can be fatal. An additional effect of the disease that varies in severity for patients with hemochromatosis is also a suppressed immune system.

What Is The Cause of Genetic Iron Overload Disorder?

Originally thought of as a disease of the intestines as a result of iron being absorbed in the intestines, the genetic mutation associated with the disease has instead been identified with the liver. The liver is now understood to be responsible for producing the hormone that regulates iron absorption in the intestines and when the genetic mutation exists, insufficient functional hormone is produced to properly limit iron intake.

Though genetic in nature, not everyone who has the gene mutation associated with the disease will develop the condition. The one gene known to cause the disease is only responsible for 80% of cases. About 1 in 4 males with this mutation will develop hemocromatosis, but only 1% of females will. Both parents must carry the mutation for a child to develop the mutation at all. Interestingly enough, though Asians and Polynesians have naturally higher concentrations of iron in their blood, they are less likely to develop the condition than Caucasians.

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Category: Disease Information, Medical Research, Symptom Information

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