What Seniors Should Know About Hemochromatosis
July happens to be National Hemochromatosis Awareness Month, a time to discuss what this condition is and how seniors can manage it. If you or a loved one has hemochromatosis in hospice care in San Mateo and elsewhere, you know how dangerous this disease can be — especially to older Americans who are already health-compromised.
Hemochromatosis, an iron storage disorder, causes the body to absorb an excess of iron from foods and multivitamin supplements. All that extra iron will build up over time in your tissues and organs, such as liver cells, pancreas, heart, joints, and pituitary gland, resulting in tissue and organ damage over time if not treated, says the CDC. Early detection is key in the fight against hemochromatosis. Blood tests can screen for iron buildup due to hereditary hemochromatosis, measuring how much iron is in the body. It also helps to know your family health history so you can understand your risk for the disorder.
Here’s what seniors should know about hemochromatosis.
The most common type of hemochromatosis is hereditary, which means it runs in families, and it’s known as primary hemochromatosis. You can also get this disorder if you’ve had many blood transfusions, blood problems, liver disease, or have abused alcohol, and this type is known as acquired or secondary hemochromatosis.
Men tend to get hemochromatosis more than women, as women in their younger years expel extra iron through blood during pregnancy and as a result of their menstrual cycles. According to the Cleveland Clinic, your risk for the disorder is increased if you or a family member have had:
- A heart attack
- Liver disease
- Erectile dysfunction
While iron is an essential element to healthy living, too much of it tends to overwhelm your body’s natural storage capability. The result is often oxidative stress, early aging, and tissue damage. Iron can be dangerous in large amounts, and its effects can be compounded when coupled with other risk factors such as obesity, family history of heart disease or diabetes, lack of enough antioxidants in the diet (vegetables and fruits), hormone replacement therapy, smoking, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and excessive alcohol consumption.
Not everyone has symptoms of hemochromatosis. Some never have any problems, while others are plagued with a lifetime of issues. Usually, symptoms don’t show up until at least the age of 40, as extra iron builds up slowly throughout your life. Early symptoms are vague and can resemble other conditions, which is why visiting your doctor regularly is key.
- Joint pain
- Weight loss
- More frequent urination
- Stomach pain
- Heart flutters or irregular heartbeat
- “Iron fist” (pain in the knuckles)
- Loss of sex drive
- Liver failure
- Heart failure
- Bronze or gray skin color
- Memory fog/confusion
If you experience any of the above symptoms, see your doctor. They will ask you some questions to pinpoint the root cause, such as:
- Do your parents have iron overload or liver disease?
- Do you take iron supplements?
- Do you take extra vitamin C (this may boost iron absorption)?
During an exam, they will:
- Check your joints for pain
- Listen for an irregular heartbeat
- Check your skin for coloring changes
- Press your liver to gauge pain levels
- Order blood tests and suggest genetic testing
- Take a liver biopsy
- Order an MRI
Treating hemochromatosis can sometimes be as simple as changing your diet, while in other cases more will have to be done to control the disorder.
- Dietary changes: Your doctor will probably tell you not to take supplements with iron and avoid foods with too much iron and vitamin C. You should also limit alcohol consumption. It’s also a good idea to stay away from raw fish and shellfish. That’s because people with hereditary hemochromatosis are more prone to infections, especially those caused by certain bacteria in fish, says the Mayo Clinic.
- Iron chelation therapy: This is a medication designed to remove extra iron from your body, taken in pill form or by injection from your doctor.
- Therapeutic phlebotomy: This is a procedure utilizing a needle and tube to remove blood from the body, followed by regular blood tests to measure levels of iron.
In the case of hereditary hemochromatosis, you can’t do anything to prevent this condition, as it’s present at birth. If you are deemed a high risk for this disease, you should be screened regularly so your doctor can diagnose and treat it in its earliest stages. Seek screening if you are a first-degree relative of someone diagnosed with hereditary hemochromatosis and are 18 to 30 years old. You could face a high risk of organ damage and eventual failure the longer it goes undiagnosed. Be prepared to take a lot of blood tests, of which there are several kinds. These include serum transferrin saturation, serum ferritin, and liver enzymes, and function tests.
Seniors should arm themselves with the knowledge they need to combat hemochromatosis, even when facing hospice care.
Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice
To learn more about the many compassionate hospice care services we offer, contact us at 888-978-1306.