Hemochromatosis is primarily an inherited (genetic) condition that allows too much iron to be absorbed and stored throughout the body. It's one of the most common genetic disorders in Canada.
1 in 9 Canadians carries the defective gene for this condition, and 1 in 300 Canadians is affected with the condition. Men and women are equally affected, although signs appear later in women.
Most people absorb only enough iron to meet their body's daily requirements, and the excess is excreted. In hemochromatosis, however, iron continues to be absorbed and stored in different organs and tissues long after the body's needs are met.
The liver is the first organ to store excess iron, after which it accumulates in the heart, pituitary gland, and elsewhere in the body. Left untreated, the resulting damage to the liver, heart, and pancreas may eventually lead to death.
In hemochromatosis, the total iron content in the body can reach as high as 50 grams, compared with the normal levels of about 2.5 grams in women and 3.5 grams in men. It's been nicknamed "bronze diabetes" because it may be accompanied by diabetes mellitus and increased skin pigmentation (darkening of the skin).
Because women lose iron in their menstrual flow, they tend to be protected from getting hemochromatosis as long as they are having menstrual cycles. Thus it affects men earlier than women, usually when men are between 40 and 60 years of age. Rare cases have occurred in children.