Q& A

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - HEALTH MATTERS -

HERED­I­TARY Haemochro­mato­sis (HH) is a ge­netic con­di­tion in which the body ab­sorbs too much iron. This con­di­tion is par­tic­u­larly com­mon among the Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion. In most parts of Europe, one in 400 peo­ple will de­velop the con­di­tion, but one in five peo­ple of Celtic ori­gin carry the gene, mean­ing it oc­curs in ap­prox­i­mately one in 80 peo­ple here.

Haemochro­mato­sis is some­times re­ferred to as the Celtic Curse due to its high lev­els in this pop­u­la­tion. The body can only store so much iron. When the stores be­come full up, any ex­tra cir­cu­lat­ing iron gets de­posited in var­i­ous or­gans, such as the pan­creas, liver and heart. If the lev­els con­tinue to in­crease and the con­di­tion goes un­treated, it can cause ir­re­versible, po­ten­tially fa­tal, or­gan dam­age.

HH usu­ally shows it­self in the fourth or fifth decade of life. Men and women are equally likely to carry the gene but pre-menopausal women are pro­tected from iron build-up and symp­toms due to blood loss in preg­nancy and men­stru­a­tion. Af­ter menopause iron lev­els can climb more rapidly. A diet high in food sup­ple­ments or in al­co­hol (which in­creases iron ab­sorp­tion) can cause symp­toms ear­lier in life.

Symp­toms may in­clude tired­ness, mus­cle and joint pain, ab­dom­i­nal dis­com­fort, re­duced li­bido or sex­ual dys­func­tion, di­a­betes and dark­en­ing of the skin. If iron over­load in­creases unchecked, the skin may be­come more bronzed and di­a­betes, cir­rho­sis and heart prob­lems can fol­low.

HH can be di­ag­nosed by a sim­ple blood test, which your GP can ar­range. It is a ge­netic test so you must con­sent to this. Re­sults can take sev­eral weeks to come back. If you are di­ag­nosed as hav­ing haemochro­mato­sis, treat­ment is sur­pris­ingly sim­ple. The level of fer­ritin in blood is an in­di­ca­tor

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