Women and Autoimmune Diseases

Article Categories: Diseases and Conditions & Patient Education

The statistics are shocking: Autoimmune diseases affect only 8% of the population, but 78% of those patients are women. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declared autoimmunity a major women’s health issue. The diseases can affect nearly every organ and system in the body, resulting in chronic illness, devastating complications, and early death.

Autoimmune diseases tend to develop during childbearing years, with an accurate diagnosis taking over four years and consultations from five physicians. Besides 45% of women being dismissed as chronic complainers, reasons for the lengthy diagnosis are:

• Young women of childbearing age are assumed to be healthy. Physical growth is completed, hormones are balanced, and the female body is generally more resistant to infections.
• Symptoms are not confined to a single body system. Consider the symptoms of lupus: hair loss, respiratory issues, achy joints, and kidney problems. “Scattered” signs are more likely to be treated individually by specialists rather than as a single condition.
• Family history may not be useful, unless a physician knows that autoimmunity can have a genetic link, but present as an entirely different disease. For example, a mother may have rheumatoid arthritis, while her daughter has type 1 diabetes and her sister has Graves’ disease.

Overall, autoimmune diseases are three times more likely to occur in women than men. Some diseases that are diagnosed predominately in women, with ratios of Female:Male, per the American Autoimmune-Related Disease Association:

• Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis 10:1
• Systemic Lupus Erythematosus 9:1
• Sjogren’s Syndrome 9:1
• Primary Biliary Cirrhosis 9:1
• Autoimmune Hepatitis 8:1
• Graves’ Disease 7:1
• Rheumatoid Arthritis 2:1
• Multiple Sclerosis 2:1

Why women? Because women have a strong inflammatory response, they may be more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. Their immune systems can become over-sensitive to their own organs and tissues, misinterpreting normal cells as antigens, and then creating antibodies to fight them. Along with a genetic predisposition, an environmental factor, such as an infection, may trigger the disease.

Research also indicates that female sex hormones may also play a role. Another theory is that after pregnancy, fetal cells circulate in the mother’s body, causing an autoimmune response. Some scientists are studying the possibility of endometriosis being an autoimmune disease.

With one woman in twelve developing some type of autoimmune disease in her lifetime, every nurse should advocate for awareness and proper diagnosis of autoimmune diseases. Support research funding and efforts on behalf of all women, as well as therapies and treatments to maintain quality of life.