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Studies show that the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, but scientists are not sure why this is happening. Although the exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, it is common among young to middle-aged women. Find out if you are at risk.

According to the latest research published by Mayo Clinic researchers, a woman's lifetime risk for acquiring autoimmune disease is around eight percent, while a man's risk is at five percent. This means that one in twelve women, and one in twenty men may develop a disorder, which involves the body's immune system attacking its own tissues. If that does not sound alarming enough, we can ask the fifty million Americans, mostly women, who are currently suffering from this type of health problem, what it is like to have low-grade fever, chronic fatigue, and other vague physical and mental symptoms.

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

The immune system is the body's defense against “foreign invaders,” which can harm or infect the cells and tissues. These harmful invaders usually include viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other parasites or toxins that manage to break through the barriers of the skin, respiratory system or gastrointestinal system. Our immune system develops from birth and adapts to the environment, acquiring the ability to produce special proteins called antibodies. These antibodies can attach to these invaders so that the body recognizes them as foreign substances. Then they are destroyed by activated white blood cells and the body's health is restored.

When one acquires an autoimmune disorder, the body mistakes its own healthy cells and tissues as foreign, and triggers it to produce antibodies and activate cells to attack itself.

Just like an infection, the result is inflammation, which becomes chronic. The inflammation may affect a certain part of the body that is targeted by the autoimmune reaction, such as the joints. However, it may also affect several parts of the body at the same time, including the heart, the skin, the nerves, the blood vessels, and other organs.

There are several types of autoimmune disease with varying clinical signs and symptoms, but most people who have one or more of these disorders experience low-grade fever, fatigue, joint pains, skin rashes, and a general feeling of being ill.

What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown. Scientists, however, believe that genetic, as well as environmental factors play a significant role in people developing at least one out of more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders. Studies also show that interactions between genetic predisposition and environmental exposures increase the risk of acquiring these diseases.

Autoimmune Disease Risk Factors

Studies show that women have the greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease, with one in twelve probably acquiring the disorder sometime in their life.

In contrast, only one in twenty men are likely to be affected. As a result, 80% of people who have autoimmune disease are female, and most of them are young to middle-aged adults at diagnosis. It is not yet established why more women are affected, but researchers are looking into hormonal and genetic mechanisms.

Studies on autoimmune disorders have found some positive correlation between the disease and factors such as:

  • smoking

  • short fertile period

  • length of breast-feeding

  • history of atopic allergies

  • psychosocial stress

  • level of education

  • history of thyroid condition

  • use of insulin

  • history of viral infection

  • use of hormone replacement therapy

  • history of pre-eclampsia (during pregnancy)

  • occupational exposure to crystalline silica

Continue reading after recommendations

  • WebMD. 1 in 12 Women Will Have Autoimmune Disease. http://www.webmd.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/news/20110110/1-in-12-women-will-have-autoimmune-disease
  • Medscape. Environmental Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/449854
  • NIH. Understanding Autoimmune Diseases. http://niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Autoimmune/default.asp
  • Medical News Today. Autoimmune Disease Rates Increasing. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/246960.php
  • Mindmap by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Kristin "Shoe" Shoemaker by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/linuxlibrarian/3193756129
  • www.medicalnewstoday.com
  • niams.nih.gov
  • www.medscape.com
  • www.webmd.com

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