Autoimmune disorders in older adults: What you need to know
By Mary Anna Rodabaugh
An autoimmune disease is a condition where your immune system attacks your own body and causes damage to your system. There are over 100 different known autoimmune disorders including but not limited to psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, as many as 23.5 million people in the United States have an autoimmune disorder. However, the onset of most autoimmune disorders occurs in individuals younger than 60.
There are several autoimmune disorders that can develop in older adults.
One such disease is Sjogren’s syndrome. This autoimmune disorder causes dry mouth and dry eyes in older adults. Other symptoms include pain in the joints or muscles, difficulty swallowing, and hoarseness or impaired voice. It is treated with eye drops, a saliva stimulator and other medications if needed.
“Probably the most common autoimmune condition that might occur only in older adults would be giant cell arteritis, also called temporal cell arteritis,” says Tom Goldberg, MD, FACP, chief of geriatric medicine at Abington Jefferson Health.
Giant cell arteritis (GCA) (not to be confused with arthritis), is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of arteries, and it can affect the head and neck. Symptoms include headaches and changes in vision. GCA is diagnosed with blood tests and a biopsy of the temporal artery in the head.
“GCA requires prompt treatment with steroids to avoid loss of vision after diagnosis,” says Goldberg. “This autoimmune disease sometimes goes along with a muscle ache condition called polymyalgia rheumatica.”
If you are experiencing symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica in conjunction with GCA, you may be prescribed a low dose steroid. Treatment can last several years, but many patients experience relief from symptoms after a few days.
Symptoms of an autoimmune disease can mimic other health conditions. Therefore, it is important to take note if you experience any ailments or symptoms that begin abruptly or seem out of the ordinary. Often, patients do not notice symptoms until they impact their quality of life.
“If you have any new symptoms, you should consult your primary care physician,” says Goldberg.
Your doctor can help you determine if your symptoms are related to a possible autoimmune disorder. You may need to see a rheumatologist for further testing. In the event of a GCA diagnosis, you may need to see an eye doctor as well.
The number one risk factor for GCA is aging. While other autoimmune disorders may not have specific risk factors, they can increase your chances of developing more serious illnesses.
According to AARP, research shows that people with inflammatory bowel disease are five times more likely to develop colon cancer. Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis have nearly double the chance they will experience some form of heart disease.
Treatment for autoimmune diseases may vary based on symptoms present. However, the majority of autoimmune conditions are treated with steroids, anti-inflammatories and biologics. Biologics are medications created from living organisms or that contain components of living organisms. These drugs can treat psoriasis, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis among other conditions.
In terms of prevention, there is little you can do to avoid developing an autoimmune disorder. “There is no vaccination, no preventive treatment, and no environmental or dietary components you can avoid,” says Goldberg.
If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, you will likely manage it throughout your lifetime. But there is a silver lining for older adults. As you age, your immune system gets weaker, which makes older adults less susceptible to immune-related diseases, says Goldberg.
The bottom line
Always remember to document any new symptoms you experience and share with your doctor. The sooner you address your symptoms, the sooner you can get back to doing the things you love.
Mary Anna Rodabaugh is a writer, editor and writing coach.