Why iron overload could spell disaster: new study

New research reveals that while high iron levels act against anaemia, they too can result in serious health problems.

The impact of excess iron, in which the body stores too much iron, can lead to liver and heart diseases and diabetes in extreme cases as well as greater risk of bacterial skin infections.

The news comes from a study undertaken by the Imperial College London, the University of South Australia and the University of Ioannina, and is published in PLOS Medicine

The study’s researchers used genetic and clinical data from around 500,000 people in the UK Biobank, examining the role of iron status and its impact on health.

Study findings reveal that high iron levels, in addition to the other diseases, can precipitate the development of cellulitis and skin abscesses.

Cellulitis alone affects around 21 million people every year, resulting in more than 17,000 deaths worldwide, making it a global health priority.

These findings are contrary to the prevalent belief that high iron levels are beneficial to health.

Iron deficiency is well documented, with about 1.2 billion people worldwide living with anaemia and facing serious health problems if untreated, as is the link between bacteria and iron.

Where this study stands out is its use of large-scale population data to support the link between iron overload and bacterial skin infections.

The researchers’ statistical method, ‘Mendelian randomisation’, uses genetic data to better estimate the causal effect of iron status on 900 diseases and conditions.

Through this method they found a link between excess iron and reduced risk of high cholesterol.

This could be significant given that high cholesterol is an important factor in cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, causing about 2.6 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

 

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