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When the Body Absorbs Too Much Iron

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 15, 2001 -- You may have heard of the problem of not having enough iron in the body. But a new study shows a genetic disorder causes the opposite extreme: too much iron in the body, and it is surprisingly common. Researchers are looking for the best way to identify this disorder since it often has no symptoms but can have serious consequences.

Iron overload, called "hemochromatosis," is one of the most common genetic disorders -- affecting 1.5 million people in the U.S. If left untreated, the ever-increasing load of iron in your body can lead to diabetes, arthritis, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and even liver cancer.

The disease has been thought to affect white men mainly, but a new study from researcher Christine McLaren and colleagues found that the disease is more common than expected in blacks as well. The tricky part is this: it seems the genetic defect that causes the disease in the majority of blacks is different than the one that causes the problem in whites. Complications from iron overload usually show up earlier in men than in women because monthly menstrual cycles help to get rid of some of the excess iron.

Since the disease often goes unnoticed, the key is that your doctor checks for iron overload when doing blood work. Currently doctors are supposed to check iron levels with a blood test called "transferrin saturation." In the past, they used to look at a different substance called "ferritin." But for the white population, that wasn't finding enough of the people who had the disease. This new study shows that ferritin may be better for finding black people with the disease. So the doctors now think that some combination of the two test maybe the best way to screen the population for this iron overload disease.

The study results appear in the October issue of the medical journal Blood.

Identifying people at risk of accumulating too much iron is important so that we can treat the problem before damaging effects on the pancreas lead to diabetes or build-up of iron in the heart causes heart failure.

McLaren's research team is looking for more volunteers to be checked for iron overload in order to better determine exactly how common this disorder is. If you are interested in enrolling in this study at the University of California, Irvine, call (714) 456-2050.

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