Professor Richard Kitching - determining the risk of autoimmune disease
Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disorders
Genetics, gender, environment, and age may all play a role in the development of autoimmune disorders.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD
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Autoimmune disorders are a collection of conditions in which the body's immune system mistakenly produces antibodies that attack a person's own organs and tissues. While researchers are fairly certain that a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental influences cause most autoimmune disorders, they are still looking into the role that different factors may play in the development of autoimmune disorders.
What Puts a Person at High Risk for Autoimmune Disorders?
Autoimmune disorders affect people of all genders, races, and ages, but certain people have an increased risk of developing autoimmune disorders. If you have any of the following risk factors, your chance of developing an autoimmune disorder is elevated:
- Gender: female.It's clear that women are at higher risk of developing autoimmune disorders, since they tend to strike women about 75 percent of the time. It's not entirely clear why women are more susceptible to autoimmunity, but some researchers speculate that women's enhanced immune systems may make them more vulnerable to autoimmune disorders. Hormones may also be a factor.
- Age: young to middle-aged.Most autoimmune disorders affect younger and middle-aged people. But each disease is different, and disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis are more common as people age.
- Ethnicity: African American, American Indian, or Latino.People who are in these ethnic groups are more likely than Caucasians to develop autoimmune disorders.
- Family history of autoimmune disorders.Studies have shown that the tendency to develop autoimmune disorders can be inherited. If you have family members who have autoimmune disorders, your chances of getting the same disorder or one that is closely related are higher.
- Exposure to environmental agents.There is some evidence that exposure to certain things in your environment may increase your risk of developing autoimmune disorders. For example, research shows that exposure to some medications (for example, procainamide or hydrolyzine) and certain medals (for example, mercury, gold, or silver) may be associated with the development of autoimmune disorders. But the scientific evidence relating environmental exposure to the development of autoimmune disorders is not conclusive, and researchers are still working to find out how environmental exposure may play a role.
- Previous infection.There is mounting evidence that genetically susceptible people who have had certain bacterial and viral infections may be at risk for some types of autoimmune disorders. But it is still unclear exactly how these infections may increase the risk of autoimmune disorders, so researchers are looking into various proposed mechanisms.
Can You Reduce Your Risk of Autoimmune Disorders?
Since the exact cause of autoimmune disorders is still unknown and probably largely due to factors you cannot control (for example, gender and genetics), it's difficult to say whether you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing autoimmune disorders.
However, as researchers find out more about the link between previous infection and the risk of developing autoimmune disorders, taking steps to reduce your risk of bacterial and viral infections would be prudent. You can do this by:
- Washing your hands.Wash your hands often, rubbing them together vigorously with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds.
- Watching your health care providers.Ask your doctors and nurses to wash their hands and wear clean gloves when they treat you.
- Staying away from people who are sick.When possible, reduce your exposure to sick people to lessen your chances of getting the infection.
- Getting vaccinated.Talk with your doctor about your previous vaccinations, and make sure that you are up-to-date on all of your current vaccinations, since they can help you avoid a disorder.
If you're concerned you are at high risk for developing autoimmune disorders, talk to your doctor. In many cases, simple tests can be performed to determine if you do, in fact, have an autoimmune disorder.
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