People with high iron levels are not only protected against anaemia but are also less likely to have high cholesterol, according to a global study.
The researchers from Imperial College London in the UK also found that too much iron in the body may increase the risk of bacterial skin infections, such as cellulitis and abscesses.
The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, looked at the role that iron plays in 900 diseases, uncovering the impact of both low and high iron levels.
Researchers used data from nearly 500,000 people in the UK Biobank, looking at the role of iron status and its impact on health.
Iron deficiency is well documented, with about 1.2 billion people worldwide living with anaemia, leading to serious health problems if left untreated, researchers said.
Around 25 to 65 per cent of differences between individuals in iron levels are due to genetic factors, according to Beben Benyamin, from Imperial College London.
“We used a statistical method, called Mendelian randomisation that employs genetic data to better estimate the causal effect of iron status on 900 diseases and conditions. Through this, we found a link between excess iron and a reduced risk of high cholesterol,” Benyamin said.
“This could be significant given that raised cholesterol is a major factor in cardiovascular disease and stroke, causing around 2.6 million deaths each year according to the World Health Organization,” said Benyamin.
However, high iron levels could also lead to a greater risk of bacterial skin infections, such as cellulitis and abscesses, researchers said.
Previous studies have found that bacteria need iron to survive and flourish, but the study is the first to use large scale population data to support the link between iron overload and bacterial skin infections, researchers said.
Cellulitis affects around 21 million people each year, resulting in more than 17,000 deaths worldwide, making it a global health priority, they said.
“We identified the previously established protective effect of higher iron status on traits related to anaemia, and further showed protective effects related to risk of high cholesterol levels and detrimental effects on risk of skin and soft tissue infections,” said Dipender Gill from Imperial College London.
Clinical trials have been undertaken to manipulate iron status in anaemic patients but, to date, no trials have targeted iron levels to prevent or treat skin infections or regulate cholesterol, researchers said.
Trial data is essential before iron manipulation is recommended for these disorders, they said.