Millennials may need to worry about autoimmune disease, right away

July 05, 2017
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We're aware of many things that have shaped millennials – the rise of technology, the internet and social networks, for instance, but what affects their health? Especially for women, it turns out autoimmune diseases may be a notable concern.


According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), autoimmune diseases affect approximately 23.5 million Americans and nearly 80 percent of that group are women. With these numbers reportedly on the rise, autoimmune diseases may have a deep impact on the future health of millennial women who are today in their mid-30s.

What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are a group of more than 80 chronic and often disabling illnesses that develop when underlying defects in the immune system lead the body to attack its own organs, tissues and cells. There are several autoimmune diseases that are remarkable for their unusual rates in women over men:

1. Multiple sclerosis (MS):
affects twice as many women as men in the United States.
 
MS causes varying degrees of neurological impairment and affects about 250,000 to 350,000 people in the U.S. The cause of MS is unknown, but research increasingly suggests that genetics play a major role in determining a person's susceptibility. Some symptoms of MS are treatable, but currently there is no cure for the disease.

2. Lupus: affects approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S., 90 percent of whom are women. 

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs. It can be mild to severe and cause fatigue, joint pain, rash and fever, among other symptoms. Research suggests that genes play an important role, but genes alone do not determine who develops it. "Environmental" factors, such as bacterial infections, may be involved in triggering the disease.

3. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): affects about 1.3 million people in the U.S. and about twice as many women as men.

RA is an inflammatory disease in the joints that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function. It occurs when the immune system attacks the membrane lining the joints. A combination of genetic and environmental factors is also thought to cause RA.

4. Scleroderma: affects approximately 40,000 to 165,000 people in the U.S., with an incidence in women up to eight times higher than in men.

The word "scleroderma" is Greek and means "hard skin." The disease leads to the overproduction of collagen in the skin, tissues beneath the skin, blood vessels and major organs. Excess collagen forms thick connective tissue that can interfere with the function of organs. Medications are available to treat its symptoms, depending on the severity of the disease, but there is no cure and what causes it currently is unknown.

Why women over men?

Researchers are exploring combinations of genetic, hormonal, environmental and immune system factors as causes for autoimmune diseases. They do not know why the rates are higher in women in certain diseases, but studies show the diseases are most often triggered in women during their reproductive years.

Gender difference itself may play a role. Some research suggests women are at a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases because they have a biologically stronger "inflammatory response" than men when their immune systems are triggered.

Diet and autoimmunity

While the genetic components known to be involved in autoimmune diseases have remained relatively constant in humans, environmental factors such as diet have changed dramatically.  The “Western diet,” which is high in fat, cholesterol and protein and involves excess intake of sugar and salt, as well as frequent consumption of processed and fast foods, has raised flags in autoimmune disease research.

For instance, researchers are studying whether the Western diet and resulting imbalance it causes in the "healthy bacteria" in our gut may be involved in Crohn's disease. Crohn's involves inflammation of the digestive tract and affects 1.6 million Americans, including up to 80,000 children.

Seek care

If you think you might be experiencing autoimmune disease symptoms, call 1-800-SWEDISH or make an appointment with your primary care physician today. Find one in our provider directory.