Autoimmune Disease on the Rise in the United States

An April 2020 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology suggests that autoimmune disease is on the rise in the United States.

In the study, researchers found that the prevalence of the most common biomarkers of autoimmune disease, called antinuclear antibodies (ANAs), is significantly increasing in the U.S. overall as well as among certain populations. These affected populations include:

  • Men
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Adolescents
  • Adults 50 year and older

The researchers examined over 14,000 patients ages 12 and up over the course of three time periods spanning 30 years. In this time frame, they discovered that the overall frequency of ANAs in their test subjects went from 11% affected individuals to almost 16% affected. The worst affected population was the adolescent group, who experienced a nearly three-fold increase in ANA rates over the course of the study period.

While the exact cause of autoimmune disease remains unknown, many scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible. However, the researchers in the study state that because people have not changed much genetically over the past 30 years, it is more likely that lifestyle or environmental factors are responsible for the ANA increases.

Christine Parks, PhD, is one of the researchers involved in the study who focuses on the environmental causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases. “These new findings…will help us design studies to better understand why some people develop autoimmune diseases,” she said. She also added that there are over 100 chronic, debilitating autoimmune conditions that could stand to benefit from further research.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a Maryland-based science journalist and author of the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, believes that our ever-increasing exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and viruses, coupled with stress, dietary and other lifestyle factors, is primarily to blame for the increase in autoimmune disease. She also points out that there may be a connection between autoimmune disease and allergies, which are also skyrocketing.

Nakazawa herself suffers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a paralyzing autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). In her latest book, The Last Best Cure, she states that experts predict that the number of Americans who suffer from chronic conditions will rise an astonishing 37% by 2030.

While this may not sound like positive news, one good thing is that with an increase in autoimmune disease, more scientists, medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies will be encouraged to undertake research to find treatments and, ultimately, a cure for autoimmunity. I personally am hopeful that we will see enormous strides in biotechnology in my lifetime.

Are you surprised by the increase in autoimmune disease in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

Toddler’s Strep Throat Triggers Neurological Autoimmune Disease

Nate Kenoe, pictured above, developed a frightening autoimmune disease after strep throat

Nate Kenoe was a vibrant, energetic 4-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he had had a string of illnesses, testing positive for strep throat five times over the course of eight months. Each time, it wasn’t immediately clear that Nate had strep throat- oftentimes, he didn’t even have a sore throat! Instead, he presented with less common symptoms, such as bad breath or a sore on his butt. When he would finally get diagnosed with strep throat, he had to take a less effective antibiotic treatment, due to his allergy to penicillin.

Eventually, Nate developed even more disturbing symptoms that weren’t in line with strep throat. He began to have sensory issues, feeling pains in his feet as if he were walking on rocks, experiencing coldness in his shoulders, and other tics. He also had dramatically changed behavior, including vomiting at the sight of food, urinating multiple times an hour and banging his head.

Thankfully, an attentive pediatrician recognized Nate’s symptoms as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infection, known as PANDAS for short. PANDAS is a little-known autoimmune disease primarily occurring in children between the ages of 3 and 12. With this disease, strep throat opens the blood-brain barrier, allowing abnormal immune cells to enter the brain and cause neuro inflammation. It has been compared to autoimmune encephalitis (AE), another autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder.

The PANDAS network estimates that 1 in 200 children could have PANDAS; however, this autoimmune condition is often under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed due to its similarity with other conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Nate’s own mother, a pediatric nurse, hadn’t even heard of the condition before.

Nate received antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications and had a surgery to remove his tonsils as a treatment for his PANDAS. As her son received treatment, his mother learned that PANDAS is in fact a controversial disease. Many physicians are skeptical that this autoimmune disease even exists, while others believe that there needs to be a standardized method for diagnosis and treatment.

One year later, Nate is faring much better than last year. However, if he gets sick, such as with a cold or virus, it will trigger another autoimmune ‘flare’ resulting in more sensory issues. Ultimately, Nate’s family hopes that by sharing his story, they can raise awareness about PANDAS, and in turn, help the disease get more research funding.

To learn more about PANDAS and Nate’s story, click here.

How a 71-year-old man got diagnosed with Autoimmune Encephalitis (AE)

Robert Given was a 71-year-old Accountant who ran his own CPA firm and was heavily involved in his local community. Although he didn’t have any prior history of autoimmune disease, he suddenly found himself impacted by a severe autoimmune condition.

While dining out with friends, Given suddenly slumped over, had a seizure, and urinated on himself. Restaurant patrons helped him to lay on the floor and called an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, he had regained consciousness but was confused, refusing to step into the ambulance until his wife told him to.

After being evaluated by a number of physicians, including an internist and a neurologist, the medical professionals made several interesting discoveries. Given had had a sudden drop in blood pressure that was uncharacteristic for someone with well-controlled high blood pressure like himself. His wife also reported that he was losing his balance, had difficulty sleeping and sometimes had slurred speech. He was also highly talkative, to the point that it appeared to be logorrhea – a constant need to talk, even if the speech is often incoherent and repetitive.

Given had a second seizure, and was once again transported to the hospital. After this second episode, his doctor pondered what condition could possibly cause a sudden onset of both neurological and psychiatric symptoms. He hypothesized that his patient might have either Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or some type of heavy metal toxicity and ordered a round of tests to see if this was the case.

The tests came back negative for MS and heavy metals, and his medical team thought that they had to go back to the drawing board. Suddenly, however, his internist Dr. Hersch realized that he had seen a similar case several years prior; the patient had died, but his test results had revealed that he had autoimmune encephalitis (AE), a group of conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the brain.

Dr. Hersch ordered a new round a tests that confirmed that Robert Given did indeed have a type of autoimmune encephalitis caused by a rogue antibody called CASPR2. Symptoms included fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate, loss of balance, insomnia, and personality changes, and the majority of patients were men over the age of 65- just like Given!

Given has been receiving treatment for his condition at the Mayo Clinic for the last three years. Due to the difficult nature of this disease, his recovery is slow, but he is relieved to have been diagnosed in time to receive life-saving medication.

The Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance says that while Given is lucky to have received a diagnosis, their aim is to raise awareness so that others with AE do not have to rely on luck to determine the outcome of the disease.

To read the original story by Dr. Lisa Sanders from the New York Times, click here. Also, check out this trailer for Brain on Fire, a movie based on a real-life story of a woman with AE.