Autoimmune Disease: Is Family History a Major Risk Factor?

A recent study sought to evaluate the impact of family history on the risk of autoimmune diseases, particularly primary biliary cholangitis and autoimmune hepatitis. There hasn’t been much research conducted on these rare diseases related to familial risks either among them or between them and other autoimmune disorders. The scientists found that family history appeared to be a significant risk factor and also found some data that suggested environmental factors as well, particularly in autoimmune hepatitis.

About Autoimmune Hepatitis

Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare disease of the liver in which the body’s own immune system begins to mistakenly attack cells of the liver, triggering an inflammatory response. Symptoms of autoimmune hepatitis include abdominal pain, fatigue, jaundice, joint pain, liver failure, weight loss, fever, and nausea. The treatment of the disease typically involves the use of immunosuppressants, such as corticosteroids or chemotherapy agents. To learn more about autoimmune hepatitis, click here.

About Primary Biliary Cholangitis

Primary biliary cholangitis, less commonly referred to as primary biliary cirrhosis, is an autoimmune disease that affects the liver. It is most characterized by progressive damage to the bile ducts, which over time allows bile and other toxic substances to build up in the liver. Symptoms include reduced bone density, skin lesions, fatigue (sometimes severe), jaundice, abdominal swelling, hepatic encephalopathy, and enlarged spleen. Treatment for the disease may include the drug Ursodiol, vitamin supplementation, and liver transplant in severe cases. To learn more about primary biliary cholangitis, click here.

Study Findings

In many instances, the cause of autoimmune illness is unclear. In some cases, a triggering event such as an infection is implicated, but genes and other environmental factors can play a role as well. The study included a total of 6,269 autoimmune hepatitis patients and 4,269 primary biliary cholangitis patients. The researchers used familial standardized incidence ratios (SIRs) to measure familial risk.

In autoimmune hepatitis, the risk was only found to be significant between siblings. A total of 14 other autoimmune conditions had a meaningful association with the disease. One of the most unexpected findings of the study was that risk between spouses was high. The researchers suggest that this data implies that environmental factors could play a stronger role in causing the illness than previously thought.

In primary biliary cholangitis, there was a clear risk between parents and their children, as well as among siblings. However, this risk was only deemed significant in women. This disease was associated with 16 other autoimmune diseases. Generally the risk of autoimmune hepatitis in primary biliary cholangitis families and vice-versa was fairly low; however, there was still an association between them. 

Check out the original study text here.

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