Iron Overload and Heart Disease

This silent condition's role in heart disease risk is inconclusive.

An increasing body of evidence suggests that high levels of iron may explain several heart disease anomalies.

For instance, men who regularly donate blood (and thus rid themselves of iron) have a lower risk of heart disease, as do premenopausal women, who regularly lose blood (and thus iron) through menstruation.

A genetic condition called hemochromatosis is associated with high levels of iron. About 1 out of 10 people carries the gene for it, and 1 out of 250 to 300 people exhibits the condition. A comparable state can also result from taking iron pills for more than 10 years or receiving numerous blood transfusions. Certain people with liver disease may also experience iron overload. Generally there are few, if any, symptoms. And therein lies the danger, for hemochromatosis causes severe depletion of glutathione, an important antioxidant. Antioxidants like glutathione help prevent the LDL from “rusting,” or oxidizing, which makes it stickier and starts the process of plaque formation. Several studies found that iron overload is most damaging to the heart if you also have a high LDL level. It makes sense, since the higher your LDL count is, the more LDL is available to be oxidized. One study found that every 1 percent rise in blood iron increased the risk of heart disease 4 percent.

Researchers suspect high iron levels may also affect cardiovascular risk in other ways. In a 1999 study Japanese researchers found that iron overload raised impaired endothelial function. Iron probably affects endothelial function by interfering with nitric oxide production. When researchers lowered the subjects’ iron levels, their endothelial function improved.

The jury is still out on the significance of the iron-heart disease link. A population-based study published in 2000 found no association between iron levels above the normal range and deaths from coronary heart disease.

Quick Tips
1. If there is a history of hemochromatosis in your family, you should have regular blood tests for iron overload. A genetic test for hemochromatosis is now available.

2. If you have a high iron condition, don’t take any iron supplements, including multivitamins that contain iron.

3. Limit your intake of red meat, which is high in iron.

4. Avoid drinking alcohol. Too much iron plus alcohol can result in liver disease or make existing liver disease worse.

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