You’re in the prime of your youth, and in great health. However, these days, more and more of this ‘invincible demographic’ are developing little-known autoimmune diseases. These occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys its own healthy body tissue, generally triggered by genetics, environmental influences (like allergies or infections), or unbalanced gut microbiome (not enough ‘good’ gut bacteria).
As it stands, millennials are most at risk for seven of the more than 80 autoimmune diseases.
Lupus affects mostly women (90%) aged between 15 and 44, and while uncommon, Singapore hospitals see around 3,000 cases each year. Lupus has 11 symptoms including sun sensitivity, joint pain, butterfly-shaped rash, and kidney failure – patients may need hospitalisation during flares. Not easily diagnosed, the most important blood screening test is for antinuclear antibodies (ANA).
Type 1 Diabetes
Symptoms include unexpected weight loss and increasing thirst and hunger, with most patients being diagnosed in childhood – it remains the predominant form of diabetes affecting children in Singapore. Diabetics are unable to metabolise glucose, and the high blood sugar levels can make people feel sick.
Crohn’s is a chronic and extremely painful inflammatory disorder of the digestive tract, and is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15 to 30. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, and gut pain – it’s diagnosed with a colonoscopy and affects 10 in every 100,000 Singaporeans.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
The most common neurological disease afflicting those aged 20 to 40 (females are 4 times more vulnerable), MS hits the central nervous system. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, numbness, vision loss, tremors, and depression, with a dozen cases diagnosed a year in Singapore. Depending on the severity, some may lose the ability to walk, while others experience extended periods of remission.
Psoriasis tends to peak between the late teens and early 30s; this skin disorder generally causes red, scaly patches (with itching or soreness), as well as dry, cracked skin that bleeds at times, and thick fingernails. Psoriasis affects 1-2% of the population in Singapore. Other skin-related autoimmune conditions include vitiligo (where the skin loses colour), and scleroderma, where the skin hardens.
Graves Disease of the Thyroid
Affecting mostly those in their 20s to 40s, especially girls, the disease affects the body’s metabolism by overproducing the thyroid hormone. Diagnosed through blood tests or an ultrasound, patients experience anxiety, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, insomnia, muscle weakness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, tremors, and nervousness. Another thyroid-related disease is Hashimoto’s which also affects young adults.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
RA causes inflammation that can damage joints and organs if left untreated, and can harden the arteries, resulting in strokes or heart attacks. It commonly affects those between 20 and 40 (women are 3 times more at risk). Common symptoms include pain and morning stiffness in small joints (like fingers). Another form of arthritis is ankylosing spondylitis, which affects mostly men aged 15 to 35, causing pain and stiffness in the lower back where the vertebrae fuse together.
When to see the doctor
Although some diseases – like psoriasis, Crohn’s, and lupus – can be hereditary, many arise spontaneously; about 80% of people with autoimmune conditions are women. Many patients with autoimmune diseases are initially dismissed as hypochondriacs.
While there is at present no cure for these diseases, living a healthy lifestyle and proper management of different treatment regimes can give patients a relatively normal life. Selena Gomez, who has lupus, only had to cancel touring once due to a flare-up, and Olympian Carrie Johnson (who suffers from Crohn’s) participated in 3 games, and won a gold medal for canoeing.