Jul 2, 2012 - Health + Traits

The Most Common Genetic Disease

A photo of a woman giving blood.Simply giving blood is one of the best ways to treat iron overload.

It’s the most common genetic disease you never heard of.  Hemochromatosis, sometimes called the “Celtic Curse,” affects an estimated one in every 300 Americans, but many who have it have no idea they do.

Serious Medical Condition

July is National Hemochromatosis Month, and 23andMe will highlight stories and research related to this genetic disease, which can quietly lead to iron overload – a serious medical condition – over time. Some people may never know they have the problem because the symptoms often appear later in life – between the ages of 40 and 60 in men and after menopause in women.

However, iron overload can cause severe damage to the liver, kidney, heart, and other organs. When iron levels in the body become dangerous, lowering those levels can be done relatively simply by having blood drawn regularly. Changes in diet can also help maintain safe levels and avoid the problems caused by chronic high levels of iron.

Hereditary Hemochromatosis

There are several forms of hereditary hemochromatosis. 23andMe currently reports on two of the most common genetic variants in the HFE gene that can lead to the condition – C282Y and H63D. Mutations in other genes can cause other kinds of hereditary hemochromatosis.

Up to 90 percent of those with hereditary hemochromatosis have two copies of the most severe variant in the HFE gene – C282Y – and they are at the highest risk of developing iron overload. Not everyone develops symptoms, and environmental factors also affect iron levels. Individuals with one copy of the C282Y variant and a second milder variant in the HFE gene are also at some risk for iron overload, though they are less likely to end up with organ damage.

The Centers for Disease Control notes that early disease detection is important, but diagnosing it can sometimes be challenging. Knowing your family history and whether you have a genetic risk for the disease can help you and your doctor decide whether you should be more proactive in screening for the condition, which can be easily managed.

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