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?
Environmental factors could be triggersAfrica-Studio/Shutterstock
Or, something outside the body could switch on the autoimmune response. “The rapid increase suggests that environmental factors play a role—a notion also supported by the fact that the increase in incidence of autoimmune disease is evident in recent migrants to western countries,” Dr. Cihakova says. In other words, studies show people who move to a western country end up with the same autoimmune rates as people who were born there. Environmental risk factors range from ultraviolet radiation and asbestos to solvents in cleaning products and nail polish. “Silica dust [from working with quartz, granite and other minerals] and smoking are two risk factors for autoimmune disease,” Dr. Somers says, as a recent review from the National Institutes of Health found. “Mercury is another toxicant that has been suggested to play a role in autoimmunity.” A study from the University of Michigan found that mercury from eating large fish like swordfish, and to lesser amounts tuna, salmon, and other seafood, correlated with higher autoimmunity—even at levels considered safe. Here’s why autoimmune and other health problems can feel worse during summer.