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The Curse of the Irish

How Understanding Your Ancestry Can Reveal Genetic Variances in Disease Prevelance

Kiss me, I’m Irish!

Those words cross the lips of many claiming Irish heritage this time of year. St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, and you better wear green if you don’t want pinched… unless you happen be Irish, as though ancestors originating from the Emerald Isle somehow grants immunity to a legend. Thus, as we approach our annual St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the world, those of us with Celtic roots begin to ponder our Irish heritage. After all, the Irish culture is a global one.

According to U.S. News and World Report, the nearly 10 million Irish who emigrated since 1800 have spawned about 70 million people worldwide who can now claim Irish heritage and its infamous luck. We associate the luck of the Irish with leprechauns, pots of gold and rainbows arching over islands of vivid green.

Unfortunately for those of Irish blood, that luck is closely followed by a curse, one that has plagued the culture for centuries. The Irish like to drink.

Obviously, that’s a harmful stereotype. Not every person of Irish descent is an alcoholic. But there is actually some truth in the precept.

Ireland and Alcoholism

According to a report from Ireland’s Health Research Board, 54 percent of respondents – about 2.4 million Irish adults – engage in harmful or risky drinking each year, compared to an overall European average of 28 percent. Likewise in Ireland, it’s estimated that at least 30 percent of all road accidents and 40 percent of fatal accidents are in some way linked to the consumption of alcohol.

Is it something in the water? Genetics? A cultural propensity? While scientists have linked alcoholism to certain genes, the tendency of the Irish to drink excessively is part of the nation’s heritage.

After all, in a history filled with poverty, starvation and persecution, regularly drinking sometimes meant the difference between death and survival. And when drinking is generational, the experience leads to more drinking.

But love of the bottle isn’t the only Irish curse, although it may be related to another. According to the British Journal of General Practice, patients of Irish heritage are overrepresented among those with certain forms of mental-health problems, and have even been associated with raised rates of suicide for many years.

So, is the increased drinking driven by mental illness, does alcoholism lead to mental illness, or is the correlation a mere coincidence? The answer could lie in our DNA.

The Celtic Curse

Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder occurring in an increased proportion among those of Celtic origin. The condition causes a person to absorb too much iron, which can have deadly consequences.

So prevalent among those of Irish heritage, hemochromatosis is actually known as the Celtic Curse. It’s thought that 40,000 Irish people – about one-in-83 – suffers from the condition, and as many as 20 percent carry the recessive gene. Children born to two parents carrying the gene will suffer from the illness, so the likelihood is high.

Scientists believe the disease originated more than 40,000 years ago when a single person in the land now known as Ireland developed a gene mutation that caused the over-absorption of iron to compensate for an iron-poor diet. Because the mutation provided an advantage to those living in the area, it slowly passed along through the population, Darwin style.

But today, foods are often enriched with iron. So, instead of making up for a deficit, those with two copies of the hemochromatosis gene cause an individual to develop a dangerous surplus of the mineral. Untreated, the condition can lead to infertility, liver damage, heart disease, mental illness and a host of other ailments, up to and including death.

Ironically, hemochromatosis is associated with alcoholism. Moderate consumption of alcohol has actually been found to aid the body in maintaining proper iron levels. Could that be linked to the Irish and their drinking culture?

It wouldn’t be the first time people inadvertently took up a behavior that treated an illness. But the “treatment” is a double-edged sword. In the long term, alcohol can actually increase the development of iron overload.

Ancestral Predispositions

While hemochromatosis can occur in any population, it’s so much more prevalent among the Irish that such genetic predispositions have leveraged the push for personalized medicine. When people are aware of their heritage and the medical variations associated with it, they can receive healthcare tailored to their genetic code.

For example, a specific genetic panel was developed for those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. The panel screens for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, Wilson disease and an assortment of other conditions. One in every five people who are of 100-percent Ashkenazi descent will carry the gene mutation for at least one of the diseases tested for by the panel.

While it’s probably not of the utmost concern to the millions who are now researching their ancestral makeup, the knowledge of one’s genetic heritage can’t hurt if an undiagnosed condition should arise. After all, the Irish aren’t the only population genetically predisposed to particular health conditions.

Such predispositions often have nothing to do with race, rather geographic origin. Back when the earliest human populations were sparsely scattered across the globe, genetic mutations could be passed on among a localized group. If that population then dispersed and multiplied with other groups, that genetic mutation would be less prevalent. But those who can trace a majority of their ancestry to a single group are more likely to have a condition associated with their ethnicity.

So, go ahead and order that Ancestry DNA test. Not only can it help you trace your family’s history, but the knowledge just might save your life. And if you find out you’re Irish… prepare for plenty of St. Pat’s kissing!

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