A “stealth condition” which is one of the western world’s most common genetic disorders is causing far higher levels of cancer and chronic health conditions than previously thought, a new study has revealed.
Hereditary hemochromatosis — a genetic condition which leads to a toxic build-up of iron in the body — was previously thought to be a low-level health risk. However, a new study, published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal, has revealed that the condition in fact quadruples the risk of liver disease and doubles the risk of arthritis and frailty in older demographics.
It also leads to a higher risk of chronic pain and diabetes.
The condition, which is caused by individuals having mutations on both copies of the HFR gene, causes individuals to absorb too much iron, which subsequently accumulates around the body and can eventually lead to organ damage.
The study, which is largest of its kind and analyzed data from 2,890 people carrying the mutations, revealed that in men of European ancestry in Britain, 5.8% of liver cancers and 1.6% of hip replacements were caused by the condition.
“The condition was thought to be mild, but we are finding it causes much more damage,” lead author Dr. David Melzer told CNN. “Symptoms are easy to confuse with other conditions such as arthritis, so it often goes undiagnosed,” he warned.
The disorder is most common among populations of European descent, north Europe in particular, and is highest among the Irish population. There are an estimated 250,000 people of European descent who have the condition in the UK.
The study further revealed that the double mutation occurs in one in every 300 non-Hispanic white individuals in the United States, while nearly 10% of that population are carriers of the mutation — meaning that they have it in just one copy of the gene.
Among the study participants, one in five men and one in 10 women developed additional diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis or liver disease, compared to those without the mutations. Fourteen people in the study also died of liver cancer.
Typical symptoms of the disorder include excessive tiredness and muscle or joint pain, which are often misdiagnosed as signs of aging.