Bronze diabetes is a genetic disorder caused by an overstorage of iron in the body which leads to organ damage, including damage to the pancreas which ultimately causes the patient to develop diabetes. This condition is more formally known as iron overload disease or hemochromatosis, with diabetes being viewed as a complication of the disease. The genetic variation which causes hemochromatosis is actually extremely common, occurring in around one in 200 to 300 people, but the condition is diagnosed much more rarely due to decreased awareness.
Patients with this condition start to accumulate iron at high levels in their bodies. Over time, the iron starts to build up in the internal organs such as the liver and pancreas. Damage to the pancreas will cause diabetes if the condition is not diagnosed in time. The skin often acquires a gray to brown tint, explaining the “bronze” in bronze diabetes. Patients can also develop fatigue, joint pain, and a generalized lack of energy.
If hemochromatosis is diagnosed early, it can be treated with phlebotomy sessions over the course of months or years to remove excess iron from the body. Once the patient's iron storage level is stable and within normal levels, he or she will require periodic phlebotomy sessions to literally bleed off excess iron. If hemochromatosis progresses into bronze diabetes, the patient will need more aggressive treatment. In addition to causing diabetes, the condition can also lead to cirrhosis and a number of cancers caused by damage to the internal organs.
Research has suggested that many diabetic patients actually have hemochromatosis, and they should be treated for this condition in addition to the diabetes. Hemochromatosis-related diabetes can be challenging to treat if the underlying iron storage problem is not addressed, because the patient will develop additional complications. Ultimately, a patient with bronze diabetes can die as a result of the damage caused by the excess iron in the body.
A doctor can diagnose hemochromatosis by taking a blood test. In a patient with a suspected case of bronze diabetes, the doctor can evaluate iron storage levels in addition to the patient's levels of insulin. If treatment is provided early enough, it may reverse the progress of the diabetes. If damage is more extensive, the patient may require additional diabetes treatment for this condition, and he or she will need to be carefully monitored for life for any signs of emerging complications.