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Autoimmunity: Many diseases, same cause

Published On: Feb 06 2012 02:58:49 PM CST
Updated On: Aug 23 2012 02:03:11 PM CDT
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(NewsUSA) - Autoimmune diseases, a series of chronic illnesses that can affect every system in the body, target women 75 percent more often than men. Clustering in families, they are one of the top 10 killers of women under the age of 65 and are currently on the rise in the U.S. and around the world.

Every person has an immune system -- a built-in defense against illness. And in every immune system, there are times when immune cells attack the body instead of foreign invaders. Research suggests that this is normal and harmless.

But in people with autoimmune disease, the autoimmune response goes into overdrive -- and the immune system damages the body. There are over 80 types of autoimmune disease, including lupus, type-1 diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis and Crohn's disease. Autoimmune diseases, while all caused by the immune system, can create symptoms in any part of the body. For example, rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints, Crohn's disease affects the gut.

Fifty million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease, yet most Americans cannot name a single autoimmune-related condition. Many medical professionals also fail to consider autoimmune diseases.

According to a study from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), the average patient sees over four doctors over four years before being diagnosed. While disproportionate numbers of women are affected, men also get autoimmune diseases as evidenced by news that President John F. Kennedy suffered from autoimmune diseases. In another study by AARDA, which polled both male and female patients, 44.6 percent had been told by their physicians prior to diagnosis that they were chronic complainers without real medical issues.

Researchers believe that both genetic and environmental factors lead to autoimmune disease. They also agree that autoimmune disorders are on the rise worldwide.

"Studies show that the incidence of multiple sclerosis in Padova, Italy, has risen from less than 100,000 cases in 1979 to over 400,000 in 1999," said AARDA Executive Director Virginia T. Ladd. "In Finland, incidence of type-1 diabetes has more than doubled in children in the past 30 years. Additionally, celiac disease is more than four times more common today in the U.S. than it was 50 years ago."

As autoimmune disorders become more prevalent, it's important that general practitioners -- often the first doctors to see patients -- become better versed in their symptoms. Women, too, should be especially aware of autoimmune diseases and the problems they can cause.