If true, this would mean we already have ways to treat and prevent health conditions we currently accept as an inevitable part of growing old.
A study led by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK compared the health of individuals aged between 40 and 70 who had a gene associated with a hereditary form of haemochromatosis with those who didn’t.
All but just a few percent of individuals who have the iron overload disorder also have two copies the gene p.C282Y.
It’s primarily responsible for a gradual build-up of iron in the body’s tissues, leading to a variety of health complaints later in life that include joint and abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss.
Since menstruation tends to reduce iron levels in the body, the condition isn’t as common among women as it is among men.
While most people diagnosed with haemochromatosis have inherited this gene, possessing p.C282Y doesn’t guarantee you’ll experience any symptoms.
In fact, one in-depth study conducted in 2002 concluded that fewer than one percent of individuals with two copies of this troublesome gene actually develop any clinically noticeable signs.
Since the gene can be found in up to 15 percent of European populations – with as many as 1 in 150 individuals inheriting two copies – it seems fortunate that the disease itself isn’t more prevalent.
But researchers have now questioned whether that prevalence is merely the tip of an iceberg.
To find out, they found nearly 3,000 individuals with two copies of p.C282Y and compared almost a decade’s worth of their medical records with hundreds of thousands of volunteers who lacked the gene.
The team looked beyond a haemochromatosis diagnosis, searching also for hints of other health problems including osteoarthritis, diabetes, and liver disease.
The results were surprising. Far from a 1 in 100 diagnosis, just under 1 in 10 women were determined to have haemochromatosis. Among men, this number was a mind-blowing 1 in 5.
Mortality rates were also higher among those with p.C282Y, a higher proportion of whom died as a result of liver disease.
Astonishingly, roughly a third of individuals with both copies of the gene had some form of related complaint, compared to around 15 percent of those without either copy.
This all implies we may have been overlooking the gene’s true impact, dismissing its handiwork as part and parcel of our encroaching twilight.
If there’s a silver lining to this discovery, it’s that we can successfully manage chronic symptoms of haemochromatosis by periodically removing a volume of blood, and the excess iron with it.
Identifying who is at risk early could mean we can reduce the risks of developing arthritis, lethargy, or potentially liver disease later in life simply by donating blood a little more often.
Of course, more research is always welcome, and while we can always encourage those who can give blood to do so when possible, we’re not advocating any kind of medical treatment without discussing it with a qualified medical practitioner.
Questions on what we should accept as human fate versus treatable illness are a common part of medical debate. For example, for generations osteoporosis was seen as an inevitable degeneration of bones that comes with age.
Similarly, the aches and pains of our senior years might be reduced, if not prevented, if they can be associated with variations in our genes.
This research was published in the BMJ.