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Autoimmune Diseases and You

Autoimmune diseases--the more than 80 chronic conditions, ranging from Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis and psoriasis, in which the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue--affect far more women than men: About 75 percent of the estimated 23.5 million Americans who have them are female, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

But when a man gets an autoimmune disease, it's often a more severe case than women typically experience.

So the AARDA has just launched a campaign to raise men's awareness of autoimmune disease, or AD. The male-focused messages list well-known fellows, including former President George H.W. Bush (who has Graves' disease), Art Garfunkel (psoriasis), and comedian/actor Bernie Mac (sarcoidosis).

While ADs aren't directly hereditary, it's believed that they occur when someone with a genetic predisposition encounters an environmental "trigger" that sets his or her disease in motion. Because AD-related symptoms are often vague and mimic those of other diseases, ADs are notoriously tough to diagnose.

Part of the problem, says Virginia Ladd, executive director of the AARDA, is that most doctor-office patient-history questionnaires don't even ask about family history of autoimmunity. Enter the AQ, or Autoimmune Quotient, a list of questions assembled by the AARDA -- click on "Do You Know Your Family AQ?" -- that can help you assess your predisposition to ADs.

But here's the thing: While most ADs can be moderated or managed through medications and other treatments, none can yet be cured. So what's the point of figuring out your risk if there's nothing you can do about it?

I asked Ladd just that. And here's what she told me: Knowing your propensity for autoimmune disease may help "trigger the thought" that you might in fact have one, leading to a speedier diagnosis.

And with ADs, speed is key. While these diseases don't have cures, their progress can often be slowed by medications and other treatments--and the prospects for controlling them and preventing the damage they cause are best when the disease is caught early.

This is something I know first-hand: It took months for my doctors to figure out that I had multiple sclerosis--something that didn't seem to be on anybody's radar screen when I first complained of numbness in my fingers and face. Maybe an idea of my AQ would have led to a faster diagnosis and gotten me on my medication sooner.

Then there's the other side of information gathering. ... Are we ready to live with the knowledge that we might one day get incurable diseases even when we're symptom free? Advances in genetic testing are making questions like that more urgent.

Tell me where you stand.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 9, 2008; 7:10 AM ET
Categories:  Chronic Conditions  
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