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Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month: the top 5 things to know – Bio.News

March is Autoimmune Awareness Month, so Bio.News has partnered with The Autoimmune Association to talk about the top five things you need to know about autoimmune disease.  

Autoimmune disease is one of the most counterintuitive disease types that a person can face, often resulting in confusion and frustration. When an autoimmune disease occurs, it is a result of the immune system mistakenly attacking and damaging healthy body tissue and cells, rather than protecting the body as it was designed to do. 

“Patients with autoimmune disease can face considerable challenges, including long and frustrating journeys to diagnosis, insurance restrictions, and barriers to care, and an overall lack of understanding by family, employers and friends,” explains Molly Murray, president and CEO of The Autoimmune Association. “In addition to these challenges, they often experience debilitating symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue, cognitive impairment, and struggle with mental and emotional effects such as depression and anxiety.”

While the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is still being researched, they are thought to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Here are five things you need to know:

The variety of autoimmune diseases are vast, ranging from the acute to the banal. These include common conditions like psoriasis, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as rarer conditions such as Behcet’s disease, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), and mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD).

To date, it is projected that 50 million Americans are living with autoimmune disease—that is 1 in 5 people. But you might be surprised to find that it is not equally spread between men and women.

2. 80% of people living with autoimmune disease are female.

Though not fully understood, scientists are studying factors such as sex hormones, microchimerism, environmental factors, the microbiome, and the X chromosome to explain the higher rate of incidence among females. 

A recent study suggests that a molecule called Xist may play a role. Xist is a molecule that ensures females, who have two X chromosomes, don’t receive twice the amount of genes activated from both X chromosomes in their cells. It works with proteins to turn off one of the X chromosomes in each cell. There’s speculation that if something goes wrong with this deactivation process, it might lead to autoimmune disease.

3. Autoimmune disease tends to cluster in families.

If one person in a family has an autoimmune disease, it’s likely that someone else does, too—although they might not have the same disease.

This phenomenon in the autoimmune disease space is called “familial aggregation” and hints at its link with genetics. Interestingly, “the concordance rate of a given autoimmune disease in identical twins (typically between 25% and 50%) is about 10 times higher than that in fraternal twins (typically between 2% and 8%),” explains Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The prevalence of autoimmune disease is increasing at an alarming rate. Across the globe, we are seeing an increase of 3%–12% annually, with teenagers experiencing a 300% increase in diagnosis over a 24-year period, though the reasons are not completely clear. Genetic predispositions, environmental factors—such as pollutants, medications, toxins, and viral infections—and lifestyle factors, including diet, sleep deprivation, stress, and lack of physical activity all likely play a role.

5. Raising awareness is key.

Raising awareness can significantly enhance research innovation, patient outcomes, and community support. By increasing visibility, we can encourage more funding and interest in research, which is crucial for developing effective diagnostics and treatments. Awareness also plays a vital role in improving diagnosis and treatment methods, as many present symptoms similar to other conditions, leading to delayed accurate diagnosis and potential irreversible damage. Furthermore, fostering awareness helps build a supportive community for those living with autoimmune conditions, offering emotional and physical support, information exchange, and advocacy, ultimately inspiring hope and advancing efforts to combat these diseases.

“Despite their profound prevalence and impact on individuals and the healthcare system, autoimmune disease remains misunderstood, underdiagnosed, and historically underfunded,” said Murray. “It is imperative that we push for more resources and better policies to support research and ensure access to treatments. We must elevate autoimmune diseases to a national priority.”

Bio.News would like to thank The Autoimmune Association, the world’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to advocacy, awareness, education, and research, for their insight and work to address the challenges of those living with autoimmune disease. Year after year, The Autoimmune Association convenes patient organizations, patients, advocates, researchers, industry, healthcare providers, and other supporters to facilitate collaboration, share knowledge, and coordinate unified awareness and advocacy efforts. You can browse The Autoimmune Association’s website to learn more and find ways that individuals, organizations, and companies can get involved.