Reduced phenotypic expression in genetic hemochromatosis with time: Role of exposure to non-genetic modifiers

Published:September 20, 2018DOI:


      • HFE hemochromatosis has become less and less severe over the last 30 years despite older age at diagnosis.
      • Chronic fatigue and distal arthralgias remain the most frequent opening symptoms.
      • Reduced alcohol intake and more overweight patients may explain decreased long-term iron load in hemochromatosis.
      • Tobacco smoking may aggravate iron loading.

      Background & Aims

      Genetic hemochromatosis is mainly related to the homozygous p.Cys282Tyr (C282Y) mutation in the HFE gene, which causes hepcidin deficiency. Its low penetrance suggests the involvement of cofactors that modulate its expression. We aimed to describe the evolution of disease presentation and of non-genetic factors liable to impact hepcidin production in the long term.


      Clinical symptoms, markers of iron load, and risk factors according to the year of diagnosis were recorded over 30 years in a cohort of adult C282Y homozygotes. A total of 2,050 patients (1,460 probands [804 males and 656 females] and 542 relatives [244 males and 346 females]) were studied.


      Over time: (i) the proband-to-relative ratio remained roughly stable; (ii) the gender ratio tended towards equilibrium among probands; (iii) age at diagnosis did not change among males and increased among females; (iv) the frequency of diabetes and hepatic fibrosis steadily decreased while that of chronic fatigue and distal joint symptoms remained stable; (v) transferrin saturation, serum ferritin and the amount of iron removed decreased; and (vi) the prevalence of excessive alcohol consumption decreased while that of patients who were overweight increased. Tobacco smoking was associated with increased transferrin saturation.


      Genetic testing did not alter the age at diagnosis, which contrasts with the dramatic decrease in iron load in both genders. Tobacco smoking could be involved in the extent of iron loading. Besides HFE testing, which enables the diagnosis of minor forms of the disease, the reduction of alcohol consumption and the increased frequency of overweight patients may have played a role in the decreased long-term iron load, as these factors are likely to improve hepcidin production.

      Lay summary

      Genetic hemochromatosis is an inherited disorder that leads to progressive iron overload in the body. It results in chronic fatigue and in potential liver (cirrhosis), pancreas (diabetes) and joint (arthritis) damage in adulthood. The present study showed that tobacco smoking may aggravate iron loading, but that hemochromatosis has become less and less severe over the last 30 years despite patients being older at diagnosis, likely because of the protective effects of lower alcohol consumption and of increased weight in the French population.

      Graphical abstract


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