They affect young women most frequentlyKjetil-Kolbjornsrud/Shutterstock
Dr. Cihakova says about 80 percent of people with autoimmune conditions are women, with some diseases like Sjogren’s syndrome having a women-to-men ratio as high as 9:1. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services‘ Office on Women’s Health says these conditions tend to develop during the childbearing years. “Females have a higher susceptibility to autoimmune diseases than men—in fact, autoimmune diseases as a group rank among the leading 10 causes of death for women,” Dr. Somers says. “For many years it was assumed that hormones such as estrogen were involved, but more recently, it has been suggested that genetic factors linked to the X chromosome may be involved.” Because females have two X chromosomes while men only have one, the second may give an extra “dose” of X that may make women more susceptible to X-linked conditions. A recent study from the University of Michigan showed how different genetic expressions in women could increase their chances of autoimmune-related diseases. Plus, ” females and males often differ in their susceptibility to the effects of environmental agents” that might impact autoimmunity, Dr. Somers says. But overall, the reason for the sex disparity is “a mystery,” she says. Read how one woman beat the chronic pain of the autoimmune condition multiple sclerosis.
No one realized these diseases were connectedShutterstock
Doctors are ramping up studies on autoimmune conditions because so little is still known about them. “We do not yet fully understand why autoimmune diseases develop,” Dr. Cihakova says. Part of the reason for this is in the past, no one connected the dots and realized that these different types of autoimmune diseases were actually related. The AARDA says that much research so far has been specific to singular diseases, instead of looking at autoimmunity as a whole. Plus, the doctors who treat autoimmune conditions tend to be spread out in many disciplines—the Office on Women’s Health lists no fewer than seven specialties, including rheumatology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, and dermatology—and so information gathered from each has not always been shared. Without understanding the root cause, it’s hard to sort out what’s really going on. And with vague symptoms (discussed later) from a generally healthy young population, getting diagnosed is not easy—an AARDA survey found it took autoimmune patients up to 4.6 years and 5 doctors to get a diagnosis. Here are more diseases doctors miss.
It’s partly in your genesMonkey-Business-Images/Shutterstock
The research we do have suggests it might be a combination of genetics and an environmental trigger that brings on an autoimmune condition, Dr. Cihakova says. Interestingly, families could have a genetic susceptibility to autoimmunity in general, so one family member might have type 1 diabetes while another has lupus, and yet another has rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s not just about genetics. “Studies on twins show that genes alone cannot explain why certain individuals develop autoimmune diseases,” says Dr. Cihakova. “It is possible that genetically susceptible individuals develop an autoimmune disease after a certain infection, as multiple viruses have been suspected to precede autoimmune diseases.” Could an autoimmune vaccine be on the horizon?