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More About Hemochromatosis (Iron Overload)

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Hemochromatosis is the number one genetic disorder while, paradoxically, it is also the one that is most often dismissed as "rare." Because it so often goes unrecognized, it is seldom diagnosed before it is clinically manifest. Most of the suffering associated with the disease is preventable if potential victims are detected in time; even when it has become symptomatic, many serious complications are reversible, but only by timely diagnosis and treatment.

It's not a blood disease as the name suggests; the disorder only becomes a disease when sufficient iron has been accumulated to cause the complications. It is thus the only inherited disorder of which all the complications are preventable and the only one that is treatable, with the right intervention. It is transmitted as an "autosomal recessive" disorder. The term homozygote is used to describe those individuals who develop the full-blown disease because they have inherited two hemochromatosis genes — one from each of their carrier parents — and they are thus predisposed to absorb more iron than they are able to excrete. Every child of a homozygote will be a "carrier" — for whom the term is heterozygote — and carriers have been known to exhibit some of the symptoms.


Primarily an inherited condition, the disease (which in itself is many diseases) has also been known to develop as a result of long-standing dietary intake in sufficient quantity, alcohol excess, multiple transfusions, and other causes, all of which — to make all this easier to comprehend — would come under the heading of "secondary" hemochromatosis.


They are widespread. Once the excess iron lodges in a vital organ, damaging or even destroying it, it causes much suffering, frequently in the form of diabetes that is often resistant to insulin.  When the skin takes on the characteristic colour (in some cases, a "tan that never fades"; in others, a slate grey), this is commonly referred to as "bronze diabetes." Symptoms vary, but many hemochromatotics experience chronic fatigue, severe abdominal pain, bouts of nausea, diminished memory, and disorientation for many years before diagnosis. In later years, there could be some degree of hearing loss.

One of the earliest symptoms is arthritis (actually pseudo gout) of the thumb joint and the knuckles of the first and second fingers.

The liver, heart, endocrine glands (glands of internal secretion, such as the pancreas), skin and joints are principally affected, and cirrhosis, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), diabetes mellitus, hypogonadism (deficient activity of testis or ovary) and what is too often thought to be arthritis are the usual manifestations. By the time clinical manifestations appear — in other words, signs that have become sufficiently evident for the examining physician to detect them — iron overload is eventually fatal unless the iron is eliminated.

It is frequently misdiagnosed as chronic hepatitis, gall bladder and thyroid problems, polycythemia, and iron deficiency. As some sufferers exhibit pronounced mood swings and other personality changes such as severe depression, anger, confusion or diminished memory, they can be incorrectly treated for mental illness. In some cases, Alzheimer’s has been suspected.

Victims who are not discovered soon enough may develop cancer of the liver; hence the importance of family screening and early treatment of affected individuals cannot be emphasized too strongly.

  1. All first-degree relatives should be investigated.
  2. A complete iron profile (consisting of tests for serum iron concentration, percentage saturation of transferrin and serum ferritin concentration should be performed.
  3. Fasting before undergoing tests is essential.

In my next article on this subject, I'll look at how the condition is treated, iron content in our food, and some celebrities who've suffered from this disorder.

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Melinda Terblanche

    It takes one’s breath away, almost like a punch in the stomach, when the truth hits you! When you read something like this, a light goes up and you suddenly realize – no, when you suddenly KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt! – what is wrong with someone you love.
    Thank you for this.

  • norni8

    hemochromatosis,runs in my family 4 siblings brother had liver transplant…. side effects really killed him ,sisters doing good ,pint blood everyb 3mo (side effects of meds )i have type 2 diabitis… feritin is the test 2 ask 4 ….

  • Marie Warder

    I am so sorry to read about your family’s ordeal. Too few doctors requisition for the complete iron “profile!”