Scientists have revealed that the western world’s most common genetic disorder is much more dangerous than previously thought.
Haemochromatosis, a medical condition caused by an overload of iron in the body, may cause high levels of serious disease and disability, according to research.
In Ireland, it is known as the “Celtic curse”, although it is common throughout northern Europe and also occurs at a lower level in southern Europe and is common in Australia and the US.
Two major studies revealed the condition quadruples the risk of liver disease and doubles the risk of arthritis and frailty in older age groups.
It also causes higher risk of diabetes and chronic pain.
Professor David Melzer, who led the research, said: “The haemochromatosis mutations were thought to only rarely cause health problems.
“We’ve shown that hereditary haemochromatosis is actually a much more common and stealth disease, including in older people.
“We now need to test ways of screening and diagnosing haemochromatosis earlier.
“It’s exciting to think that better care might prevent so much unnecessary disease.”
The number of deaths from liver cancer in men with the faulty genes was significantly higher than expected, although the overall number of deaths was small, the studies in UK Biobank data found.
Led by the universities of Exeter and Connecticut, the research suggests that routine screening may be needed for people at risk of haemochromatosis.
The condition causes people to absorb too much iron their diet, which accumulates around the body over time, damaging organs and eventually causing disease.
It is the most common genetic disorder in the UK, with an estimated 250,000 people of European ancestry in the country having the disease.
It is caused when people have two particular faulty genes, and symptoms can include feeling tired all the time, muscle weakness and joint pain.
Treatment initially involves the regular removal of blood, known as a venesection, and this is usually carried out every few weeks.
The team analysed data from 2,890 people with the two genetic mutations.
Of that group, one in five men and one in 10 women with the mutations developed additional diseases, compared to those without mutations.
Scottish father Andy McLennan was forced to give up drinking after being diagnosed with haemochromatosis while living in New York in 2012.
The 42-year-old said it was a “shaky time” before his diagnosis.
“I vividly recall coming home each night, having put any worries to the back of my mind during the working day, holding my 10-month-old daughter and pacing the floor saying to my wife ‘What is up with me? Is it diabetes? Would I know if I had cancer? Could it be leukaemia? What if it’s something serious?’,” he said.
“I like nothing more than a steak, pint of Guinness or glass of red wine, but health came first and I immediately ceased drinking.”
Long distance runner Ruth Jones, 38, said it took nine months of tests before she was finally diagnosed with condition after a “catalogue of errors”.
The mother-of-two from Stamford, Lincolnshire runs up to 70 miles a week and was seeking an explanation for her plummeting energy levels and slower speeds.
“I was feeling exhausted all the time. I was finding running much harder, for no obvious reason. It went well beyond what other runners experience as part of getting older,” she said.
She added that there isn’t enough knowledge about the condition in the medical profession.
Dr Luke Pilling, a member of the research team, said: “We found that diagnosis of haemochromatosis is often delayed or missed. That’s not surprising as symptoms such as joint pains and tiredness are frequently mistaken as signs of ageing.
“Yet it is likely that these potentially deadly health risks could be treated and avoided, transforming lives, especially at older ages.”