Racial Disparities in Lupus
Last updated: February 2023
Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a disorder that happens when your immune system attacks your own organs and tissues. Molecules called antibodies within your immune system normally detect and destroy foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. However, in lupus and other autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks your own tissues.1
Lupus acts differently in different people, and it can affect multiple systems in your body. These include the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain, and blood cells. Depending on which systems of the body are affected, the symptoms of lupus vary from person to person.1
Who gets lupus?
About 1.5 million in the United States and at least 5 million people worldwide have lupus. Most people develop symptoms and are diagnosed between ages 15 and 44. Only 15 percent of people have symptoms before age 18.2
Roughly 90 percent of people who get lupus are women. And in the United States, lupus is 2 to 3 times more common among women of color than in Caucasian women. Women of color include African Americans, Hispanics/Latinas, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.2
Lupus also seems to have a genetic component. Relatives of people with lupus have somewhere between a 5 and a 13 percent chance of getting the disease.2
Racial disparities within the lupus community
A number of research studies have shown that women of color have worse health effects from lupus than white women. One study found that non-white women develop lupus at a younger age. They also have more serious complications from the disease and die from it more often than white women.2
Another study found that Black people with lupus had more organ problems, more active disease, and less social support than white people. In fact, Black people die much more often because of lupus than white people, and at a much younger age. On average, Black people die about 13 years younger.2-4
These differences between racial groups (disparities) show how important it is for people with lupus to get diagnosed and treated early. This may help them avoid the most serious damage from the disease.3,4
Large studies on lupus racial disparities
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has funded several studies to understand the differences in lupus among people of different ethnic backgrounds. The researchers found a number of important factors that may relate to racial disparities:5
- Depression is a factor in lupus. It can lead to worse health on its own. And it can make people feel less inclined to take care of themselves and less supported by their healthcare team. Black women with lupus have worse mental health than white women overall, but they are diagnosed less often with depression. This means they may be left untreated.
- Racial discrimination and the stress it causes can lead to worse health from lupus. Black women are more likely than white women to experience discrimination.
- The quality of care in detecting and caring for kidney damage that happens because of lupus is different in different areas.
- A diet high in “good fats,” like omega-3 fatty acids, is connected to better health for people with lupus. But that kind of diet is uncommon among people who do not have access to healthy food options in the United States.
- Black and Hispanic people with lupus were found to be less consistent in taking certain medicines important for treating the disease and preventing major damage.
How are you most likely to respond when someone offers you unsolicited advice about your lupus?