Here is a modest proposal to save lives on St. Patrick’s Day: Get your ferritin checked! This is a simple blood test to let you know how your body is handling iron. If your ferritin is “high” then your body may be loading iron, which can cause serious damage to joints, liver, heart, brain, and endocrine system. The leading cause of this “iron overload” is hereditary hemochromatosis, the classic form of which is present in 1 out of every 83 people in Ireland and 1 in every 200 people of Northern European descent around the world.
If you are Irish, part-Irish, or “Celtic” in the broadest sense of the word, then you should know what your ferritin level is. If hemochromatosis is discovered early enough you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to avoid serious complications such as those chronicled here.
If you have access to your medical records, why not look and see if your ferritin level has been measured. A healthy range for ferritin is 25-150ng/mL. Sadly, the ferritin test is not always included in the routine blood tests you get for an annual physical and so you will need to ask your doctor to order it. Tell your doctor you think you have Celtic genes and, if you have any of the symptoms listed here, let him or her know as this will help the back office select the right billing codes. A family history that includes diabetes, liver disease, or heart problems, is also potential risk factor.
If St Patrick’s Day became “Check Your Ferritin Day” we could save hundreds of thousands of people from suffering the prolonged effects of iron overload, which can cause death. Ferritin tests are cheap, and so is the treatment: you give blood until the level is lowered (in most cases serum ferritin will drop by about 30ng/mL with each unit of blood removed).
And there’s even a pot of gold to be had. Besides the pain and suffering we would prevent, think of the hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare savings every year from preventing the preventable cases of iron-exacerbated cancers, diabetes, liver and heart disease, and joint replacements. It’s great to be Irish. It’s even greater to know that your ferritin level is under control.