Hemochromatosis & Diabetes: Iron Overload Disease & Common Ancestral Prevalence

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Hemochromatosis is an iron-overload disease. People with the hemochromatosis gene absorb more iron from their diet than other people, and this can damage many body organs, including the pancreas. The latter damage can cause diabetes.

    Most people consider hemochromatosis to be found primarily in people of Celtic descent. I thought so too, as that's what I'd always read. For example, the Mayo clinic says there's higher risk in "people of Northern European descent -- British, Dutch, German, Irish and French." Other sources just say "Northern European" without specifying what that means.

    So I was surprised to read recently, when looking into this for a friend who is descended from Norwegian ancestors, that "The prevalence of hereditary hemochromatosis in Norway is one of the highest reported in the world."

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    One study found a prevalence of the hemocrhomastosis gene (HFE) in 34% of first-time blood donors in Oslo. According to a gene-testing site, "for people of Celtic ancestry (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, French Brittany), 1 in 4 carry a genetic change in the HFE gene," or "only" 25%. They say that for "Northern Europeans" as a whole, the prevalence is only 10%. For southern Europeans, it's 3%.

    The Centers for Disease Control, at least, got it right. They include Scandinavians: "White people of northern European descent (for example, families from England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, France, and Scandinavia) have a higher chance of having the HFE gene mutation."


    What all this illustrates is how commonly accepted wisdom is often proved to be untrue, only half true, or only slightly true, as we learn more and more about our health. It also illustrates that it takes time for new knowledge to filter down to practitioners, even those at top-notch medical centers. The study I cite was published in 2000 (and there are even earlier ones by the same group), but the well-respected Mayo Clinic has still not added Scandinavians to their list of "Northern Europeans."

    But the important thing is not so much who says what about hemochromatosis as it is for people of Scandinavian ancestry to understand that they are at even higher risk risk for this disease than people of Celtic ancestry. If this applies to you, read about the symptoms and then speak with your doctor about your concerns. Getting tested could save your life.



Published On: April 02, 2009