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Hemochromatosis is also known as iron overload, bronze diabetes, hereditary hemochromatosis and familial hemochromatosis. The inherited disorder causes increased absorption of intestinal iron, well beyond that needed to replace the body's loss of iron. Iron overload diseases afflict as many as 1.5 million persons in the United States. The most common of these, as well as one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States, is hereditary hemochromatosis. Men and women are equally affected by hemochromatosis, but women are diagnosed later in life because of blood loss from menstruation and childbirth. It most commonly appears in patients between the ages of 40-60 years, since it takes many years for the body to accumulate excessive iron. Symptoms appear later in females than in males—usually after menopause.

Hemochromatosis causes excess iron storage in several organs of the body including the liver, pancreas, endocrine glands, heart, skin, joints, and intestinal lining. The buildup of iron in these organs can lead to serious complications, including heart failure, liver cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. It is estimated that about 5% of cirrhosis cases are caused by hereditary hemochromatosis.

Idiopathic pulmonary hemosiderosis, a disorder afflicting children and young adults, is a similar overload disorder characterized by abnormal accumulation of hemosiderin. Hemosiderin is a protein found in most tissues, especially the liver. It is produced by digestion of hematin, an iron-related substance.

Hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in the United States. Approximately one in nine individuals have one abnormal hemochromatosis gene (11% of the population). Since everyone has two copies of each gene, these individuals have an abnormal HFE gene and a normal gene. They are called carriers. Between 1/200-1/400 individuals have two abnormal genes for hemochromatosis and no normal gene.

With most autosomal recessive conditions, an affected person's parents are carriers. If more than one family member has the condition, they are siblings. Hemochromatosis is so common, however, that families are seen in which both parents are affected, or one parent is affected and the other parent is a carrier. More than one generation may be affected, which is not usually seen in rare autosomal recessive conditions.

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