We pass our hair, eyes, and sense of humor onto our children. But can we also give them anemia? The answer is a little complicated.
Every parent wants the best for their children, especially when it comes to their health. So when one or both parents have a condition like anemia, it’s natural to wonder if it’ll be passed down to the next generation.
Or sometimes parents are unaware they even carry the genes for that condition and are taken by surprise when their child starts showing symptoms—which happened to the family of our Chief Technology Officer, Rob Mannino.
In this blog, we’ll break down what forms of anemia can be genetic and what expectant parents should know.
Is Iron Deficiency Anemia Genetic?
The short and sweet answer to this is, no, iron deficiency anemia (IDA) in and of itself is not genetic. As a refresher, IDA is simply when your body lacks enough dietary iron to produce hemoglobin, which is used to transport oxygen throughout your body. This usually happens because of diet and lifestyle choices.
We say usually because there are other ways, including some genetic conditions, that can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Iron refractory anemia, for example, is a genetic condition that causes genetic mutations in the gene responsible for regulating your body’s iron levels. Essentially this gene, called the TMPRSS6 gene, tells the body to create a protein that then instructs your system to absorb more iron. In other words, your body doesn’t start using iron until that protein tells it to do so.
If your body lacks that protein, it won’t use iron when it’s needed, which can then lead to iron deficiency anemia. This type of anemia is rare, but the exact number of people who have it is unknown.
Other genetic conditions and blood disorders can cause things like blood loss, or damage to red blood cells, which can lead to iron deficiency anemia. These include:
- Bone marrow failure syndrome
- Aplastic anemia (a type of bone marrow failure)
- Stem cell issues
- Hemolytic anemia (a condition where red blood cells are destroyed faster than they’re created)
- Pernicious anemia (in which the body lacks enough Vitamin B12 to create new red blood cells)
- Crohn’s disease
- Small/large intestine diseases
- Hereditary spherocytosis (which results in an enlarged spleen that causes damage to red blood cells)
Is Sickle Cell Disease Genetic?
Yes, sickle cell disease is what’s known as a recessive genetic disorder. What that means is not everyone who carries the gene has the condition, and both parents must possess the gene and pass it onto their children for them to show symptoms.
So if one parent has it, but the other doesn’t, the child won’t have sickle cell anemia. In the United States, newborns must undergo testing to see if they carry the gene for this condition so it should be easy for many to know whether they’re a carrier or not. The NCAA also requires sickle cell anemia testing for all of its athletes.
Is Thalassemia Genetic?
Yes, thalassemia and all of its types are genetic.
In short, thalassemia affects a number of different genes and what type a child might inherit depends on those genes. We won’t get too in depth, but basically one parent may have one type of mutated gene, and the other another, which can result in their child having beta thalassemia major or minor.
Two separate parents could have a set of different mutated genes, which could cause their child to have alpha thalassemia major or minor.
In most cases, genetic counseling or blood tests can let you know if you’re a carrier for a thalassemia gene. Although screening is common these days, Mannino encourages everyone to get tested.
“It’s certainly something everyone should be aware of,” he says.
Mannino has beta thalassemia major, and his parents were actually taken off guard because they did look at their genetic history before having kids.
“My mom is a textbook thalassemia trait carrier,” he explains, “and my dad is a trait carrier, but at first it was misinterpreted as a different hemoglobin mutation.” In other words, the doctors didn’t think Mannino’s parents would have children with thalassemia because it appeared only one of them possessed a mutated gene.
What Parents Should Know About Genetic Anemia
First, you should know newborns in countries like the United States are screened for different types of anemia at birth. But if you want to know more before your child is born, or are thinking of having children, you can visit a genetic counselor.
A genetic counselor can collect information about your family tree and family health history to let you know the likelihood of your child inheriting a genetic condition. For more information, you can visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors directory.