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Iron Overload: Treatment for Common Genetic Disorder

GeneticsOct 23, 09

Absorbing and storing too much iron can cause an array of health problems—for starters, joint pain, fatigue, weakness and loss of interest in sex. This condition, called hemochromatosis, is the most common genetic disorder in the United States, most frequently occurring in people of Northern European descent.

The October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter provides an overview of hemochromatosis, including its genetic cause, subtle early symptoms, potential health risks and treatment.

When people have hemochromatosis, their bodies absorb and store too much iron from their normal diet. Over decades, the iron levels can build up in various organs, most often the liver and heart. Without treatment, iron levels accumulate to 20 times that of a person without the disorder. The result can be irreversible scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer, diabetes, heart failure, heart rhythm problems, arthritis, impotence or darkening of the skin.

Because of routine blood tests and follow-up genetic testing, nearly three-fourths of those with hemochromatosis are diagnosed before symptoms even begin. Usually, iron levels can be returned to normal without lasting health problems.

The most common treatment is as straightforward as the process of donating blood. About 1 pint of blood is removed from the patient every one to two weeks until iron markers in the blood reach normal levels. Once normal levels are reached, which can take from several weeks to a year or more, blood is drawn two to four times a year.

When iron levels return to normal, patients see marked improvements in weakness, fatigue, darkening of the skin and possibly even early-stage liver and heart disease. However, if cirrhosis occurs, damage to the liver may be permanent. The increased risk of liver cancer associated with cirrhosis will remain, too.

Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an eight-page monthly newsletter of reliable, accurate and practical information on today’s health and medical news. To subscribe, please call 800-333-9037 (toll-free), extension 9771, or visit http://www.HealthLetter.MayoClinic.com.

About Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. Doctors from every medical specialty work together to care for patients, joined by common systems and a philosophy of “the needs of the patient come first.” More than 3,300 physicians, scientists and researchers and 46,000 allied health staff work at Mayo Clinic, which has sites in Rochester, Minn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz. Collectively, the three locations treat more than half a million people each year. To obtain the latest news releases from Mayo Clinic, go to http://www.mayoclinic.org/news. For information about research and education, visit http://www.mayo.edu. MayoClinic.com (http://www.mayoclinic.com) is available as a resource for your health stories.

Source:  Mayo Clinic

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