If autoimmune diseases were counted as a single category instead of more than 20 separate illnesses, they would move on to the federal government’s list of the 10 most common causes of death for women under 65, according to a University of Connecticut Health Center researcher.
“Most of us know someone with an autoimmune disease, we just didn’t know that the ‘rare’ condition they have is part of a large group of similar diseases that afflict a relatively large segment of the population,” said Stephen J. Walsh, Sc.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Community Medicine and Health Care.
“Despite their common occurrence, the autoimmune diseases have not received the attention they deserve from public health officials because, taken as individual diseases, they didn’t seem all that common,” Walsh added. Dr. Walsh reported his findings in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Autoimmune diseases, a broad class of illnesses affecting the immune system includes rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma and juvenile diabetes among others. Medical researchers have shown that at least 20 different diseases involve autoimmune processes, and they are currently investigating the possibility that another 40 might do so too.
Walsh said new research shows that as a class, autoimmune diseases are a significant source of illness, disability, and death. He pointed to a study that estimated how many people in the United States have an autoimmune disease. The study concluded that for women the number is about 1 in 20. Walsh believes this demonstrates that only by studying these similar diseases as a group can we come to appreciate their impact on public health.
Why the diseases affect women the way they do is one of the “big” research questions that remains to be answered. The fact is that in adults, the major autoimmune diseases occur more often in women than men. For example, multiple sclerosis occurs twice as often in women and lupus occurs 6- to-7 times more often. More frequent occurrence among women is one of the most evident characteristics of autoimmune diseases, Walsh said, but scientists still have little understanding of why that’s the case.
The government’s list of the most common causes of death is an annual compilation of how people die broken down by demographic characteristics. The primary causes of death for women under 65 include heart disease, cancer, stroke, AIDS, accidents, suicide and homicide.
Dr. Walsh suggests additional resources should be committed to investigating autoimmune diseases – both the causes and potential cures. He specifically points to the need for regional registries of people diagnosed with autoimmune diseases.
“No single hospital or university has enough patients with any one autoimmune disease to support effective evaluation of causes or treatments,” he said. “The creation of regional registries for cancer patients started in Connecticut in the 1930s and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of that disease. With a modest level of federal support, a similar program could be initiated for the autoimmune diseases.”
An autoimmune disease is the opposite of AIDS. AIDS involves a deficient immune system that cannot fight off infection. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system is overly-active to the degree that it is harmful in the absence of any infection, Dr. Walsh said.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease affecting one to two percent of the population. It appears to hit women the hardest, with an estimated 22.8 million female sufferers in the United States alone.