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!

How One Woman Lives Her Best Life Battling Two Autoimmune Diseases

Lisa Diven, a lifelong athlete, has battled two aggressive autoimmune diseases

Lisa Diven was a 23-year old athlete and recent university graduate when she first began what would become a long battle against chronic illness. Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, she was ready to take on the world. Her health, however, had other plans.

Lisa was running 10 miles a day in preparation for a marathon race when she began to experience pain in her foot. Thinking that it was just a stress fracture, she avoided seeing a doctor until the pain worsened. When she finally did see her physician, he also thought it was just a stress fracture. Six months later, however, the pain had gotten even worse, and Lisa was forced to see a Rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease causing painful inflammation in one’s joints.

Although Lisa was relieved to put a name to her pain, she encountered another uphill battle. As a result of step therapy, her medical insurance required her to use less expensive treatments to prove they didn’t work until she could take the more expensive biologic medications that her doctor recommended. Consequently, Lisa was forced to take medications for six months, during which time her symptoms worsened and she experienced irreversible joint damage. Once Lisa finally started taking the biologics, her symptoms began to improve.

For the next 10 years of her life, rheumatoid arthritis continued to ravage Lisa’s every joint. Though she was able to control the disease with treatment, pain was still a major aspect of her life.

Eventually, Lisa and her husband decided to start a family. Due to the high-risk nature of the pregnancy, Lisa went to a high-risk obstetrics practice. Though she got through the pregnancy okay, she experienced a massive flare three months post delivery, and the medications that she had used with success previously no longer worked. She lost her appetite and lost weight, and she experienced migraines, vertigo, anxiety and depression. Lisa was forced to go on an extended medical leave, and later left her job completely. After seeing various specialists, Lisa was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), another autoimmune disease that causes widespread damage to the body’s vital organs, skin and joints.

Lisa is now being actively treated for lupus, all while controlling her existing RA symptoms. She is happy to report that she finally feels like she is returning to being ‘herself’ again. One of the things that helped Lisa the most was connecting with other patients through the Arthritis Foundation, through which she later started a local support group to help others living with the disease. These days, Lisa feels healthy more often than sick, and given her tumultuous health history, that’s a win she’ll take.

To read more about Lisa’s battle with autoimmune disease, visit healthywomen.org.

10 Facts about Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

According to the Mayo Clinic, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that occurs when one’s body attacks the synovium (the lining of the membranes surrounding one’s joints). Read on to learn 10 interesting facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. Joint pain is a hallmark of the disease

The John Hopkins Arthritis Center states that pain and swelling of the small joints—such as those in the hands and feet—is a hallmark symptom of the disease. However, any joint in the body can be affected by RA. Other than pain and swelling, the inflammation caused by RA can lead to stiffness, deformity, and even loss of function. Joint damage occurs in 80% to 85% of affected patients, with the majority of the damage occurring in the first two years of developing the disease.

2. RA doesn’t just affect the joints

Although joint pain is the most common symptom, RA affects more that just one’s joints. Other manifestations of the disease include eye inflammation, a low white blood cell count, subcutaneous nodules (skin lesions), fatigue and lung disease. What’s more, RA is known to be associated with a higher risk of lymphoma (a type of cancer), anemia (low iron levels), osteoporosis, and depression.

3. It puts patients at risk for death

Left untreated, RA increases one’s risk of mortality. The John Hopkins Arthritis Center states that untreated individuals with RA are twice as likely to die compared to unaffected individuals of the same age. Furthermore, RA can reduce life expectancy by 10 to 15 years.

4. It’s more common than you think

RA is in fact the most common type of autoimmune arthritis, affecting more than 1.3 million Americans. Approximately 75% of all RA patients are women, and 1-3% of the American female population is predicted to develop the disease over the course of their lifetime.

5. People of all ages can be affected

A common misconception of RA is that it’s an ‘old person disease’. Not true. The onset of the disease most commonly occurs in those ages 30 to 50; however, anyone of any age can develop the condition. Furthermore, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which occurs in those ages 16 and under, currently affects 50,000 children and youth in the U.S. alone.

6. There are other types of arthritis too

RA is mistakenly believed to only affect senior citizens, since it is often confused with osteoarthritis, which occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down over time. Other types of arthritis include psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and gout. To learn more about each of these different types of arthritis, visit the John Hopkins Arthritis Center’s website.

7. There are multiple risk factors

Although the exact cause of RA is unknown, scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may put individuals at a greater risk of developing the disease. Beyond being female and middle-aged, other risk factors include: having a family history of the disease, smoking, exposure to substances like asbestos or silica, and obesity.

8. There are a variety of treatment options

Rheumatologists often prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce the inflammation and pain associated with RA. Other prescription medications that treat RA include corticosteroids, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), and biologic response modifiers. Non-pharmaceutical treatment options include physical therapy, chiropractor treatment, and in some cases, surgery. To read more about these treatment options, visit the RA Support Network website.

9. The prognosis of the disease varies

Some patients with RA report only mild symptoms that place few limitations on their everyday lives. However, other patients experience significant pain and impact on their lives, including their ability to work. One of the main factors that predicts the disease prognosis is early detection. The earlier RA is identified, the sooner it can be effectively treated and joint inflammation and damage can be reduced.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, check out the American College of Rheumatology’s patient education videos to learn more about the condition. Additional patient and caregiver resources can be found on their website, including fact sheets, case studies and current news.

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