Autoimmune Disease, Arthritis and Women

Why are women targeted more than men?

Autoimmune diseases that cause arthritis symptoms tend to affect more women than men. This understanding has been established for well over a hundred years, but only in recent years has research paid specific focus to possible reasoning.

Autoimmune Disease and Arthritis

There are 50 million Americans that live with an autoimmune disease and more than 75 percent are women. The term “autoimmune disease” refers to a group of different illnesses characterized by a problem called “autoimmunity,” wherein the body’s immune system attacks the cells it is supposed to protect.

Many autoimmune diseases are characterized by inflammation of the joints in addition to inflammation of connective and soft tissues and even organs. The most common autoimmune diseases that cause arthritis symptoms include rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, Still’s Disease, juvenile arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, ankylosing spondylitis, primary sjogren’s syndrome and mixed connective tissue disease.

Statistics for Women

Women are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, this according to estimates reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. Moreover, autoimmune disease has been cited as one of the top causes of death among U.S. women under the age of 65 and is also the fourth largest reason for disability among American women.

Possible Explanations

Why exactly are women more prone to arthritis producing autoimmune disease than are men? Here are some possible explanations.

Hormones. Some researchers believe that because women produce estrogen, it puts them at a greater risk for autoimmune disease. In fact, research has shown that high estrogen levels force women’s bodies’ overreact much like the response of autoimmunity.

Environment. Researchers pay a lot more attention to the role played by environmental factors as an underlying trigger to autoimmune disease. It is very likely that exposure to external toxins, such as environmental pollutants and medication, can trigger an autoimmune response. And the role that men and women play at home and in the workplace can help determine who is exposed to specific toxins. Researchers are also looking at products that women use in greater frequency, such as hair dyes and makeup, to determine if these pay a role.

Genes. Genetic differences between men and women are a big consideration in explaining why women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases. Most research has pointed to the fact that women and men have completely different cells throughout their entire bodies despite having similar tissues. A revealing study out of the University of Manchester UK hinted that X chromosomes play a part in the development of autoimmune disease and because women have two of these, their risk becomes greater.

Stress. Stress affects the body’s ability manage immune functions. In fact, autoimmunity can result when stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate inflammation. The belief is that because women process stress differently than men, the reduced levels of cortisol encourage inflammation rather than inhibit it.

Evidence is Only Circumstantial

While researchers do identify hormones, environmental factors, genes and stress as potential contributing factors to the higher incidence of autoimmune disease in women, these triggers are at best circumstantial. What do know is that while autoimmune disease is more common in women, men are often affected much more severely. Interestingly, research in animal studies have shown the same bias. To sum up, while hormones, environmental factors, genes, and stress may play a role in a women’s autoimmune response, they have very little to do with how strong that response will be.