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Hemochromatosis and Diabetes

What is hemochromatosis?

A single-gene disease that causes iron accumulation in the tissues of the body. Diabetes is a primary complication if hemochromatosis goes untreated. Hemochromatosis is sometimes referred to as "bronze diabetes."

How common is it?

As many as 1 in 200 Americans are believed to carry both copies of the gene for hemochromatosis, and it is estimated that about half of them will eventually develop complications. That puts it roughly on a par with type 1 diabetes for prevalence. Like type 2 diabetes, it is severely underdiagnosed.

How is hemochromatosis treated?

Once it is diagnosed, it is managed extremely effectively via frequent phlebotomy (blood letting).

Hemochromatosis: The Background

Hereditary hemochromatosis is the most common single-gene disease in Western populations, affecting 1 out of every 200-300 people. Yet it is almost unheard of by the general public, and many health professionals are insufficiently aware of it. Because the disorder can cause diabetes via damage to the pancreas, it is something that deserves greater recognition in the American Diabetes Association community.

Hereditary hemochromatosis is the most common of several "iron overload" diseases, which are characterized by an excess accumulation of iron in the body. In the case of hemochromatosis, a single gene mutation causes extra iron to be absorbed from food in the intestine, and the body lacks an efficient means of excreting the excess iron it takes in. Over time, this iron accumulates in the tissues of the body, most notably the pancreas, the liver, and the heart. The extra iron builds up in the organs and damages them.

Without treatment, the disease can cause these organs to fail, leading to diabetes, cirrhosis, and heart disease. In many patients, the buildup of iron eventually becomes so excessive that it visibly shows up in the skin, turning it a dark gray or bronze color. In fact, hemochromatosis is sometimes referred to as "bronze diabetes" because of the appearance of some patients when they are diagnosed.