The news that Selena Gomez has been diagnosed with lupus spotlights a category of illnesses that strike far more women than men.
Lupus and the other autoimmune diseases are relatively rare, affecting about 8 percent of the population, but 78 percent of those who develop these diseases are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Scientists haven’t yet teased out the explanation for that gender bias, but it’s thought that hormones may play a role.
What is known is that some of us seem to inherit a susceptibility to these diseases and then an environmental factor triggers them. So, while you may not have a family history of lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, for example, that doesn’t mean you haven’t inherited the genes that put you at risk for developing them. While the genetics are necessary they are not sufficient to cause the disease.
A host of environmental factors, including infections, exposures to toxins and stress can be the spark that ignites an autoimmune disease.
Some facts that might surprise you:
Heart disease is the real danger
Many people assume that the mortality from autoimmune diseases relates solely to the disease itself or to its treatment, when in fact, the number one cause of death in RA and lupus, for example, is heart disease.
When I have patients who are frightened of the side effects associated with the various drug therapies, I tell them that this is a very real risk if the disease is left untreated.
You're not too young for arthritis
Many autoimmune diseases strike women in their childbearing years, that is, their 20s, 30s and 40s.
People assume that any kind of arthritis is related to old age and I often hear rheumatoid arthritis patients say, “I thought I was too young to get this.”
Smoking is a major risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis
So if the threat of lung cancer and heart disease isn’t enough to get you to kick the habit, remember that smoking can flip the switch on for rheumatoid arthritis.
Sun exposure can be a trigger
I tell at-risk patients with a very strong family history of lupus who are concerned about their own risk to avoid prolonged, non-SPF protected sun exposure, as UV radiation is a well described trigger for systemic lupus erythematosus.
Anti-inflammatory diet may help
Although the jury is still out, there is a lot written about the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet and I do advise my at-risk patients to try and avoid pro-inflammatory foods as that may lessen their likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease.
My patients with established disease often tell me they feel better when they follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
Autoimmune diseases leave you at a higher risk of certain kinds of cancers, such as lymphoma.
Certain chemotherapy drugs, like the one that Gomez is being treated with, can help by down-regulating over active inflammatory cells.
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Women tend to be much more aware of breast cancer and heart disease and while those both are very important, autoimmune diseases can really impact people’s lives if not for any other reason than the profound fatigue that comes with them. The important message is there are effective therapies and support groups out there that can help.