A woman of color is next to a caucasian woman, with their heads meeting in the middle in a sort of venn diagram.

Racial Disparities in Lupus

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 turns on your body and 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.2
  • Roughly 90 percent of people who get lupus are women.
  • In the US, lupus is 2 to 3 times more common among women of color than Caucasians. This includes African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
  • Most people develop symptoms and are diagnosed between ages 15 and 44; only 15 percent of people get symptoms before age 18.
  • Relatives of people with lupus have a 5 to 13 percent chance of getting the disease.

Lupus is worse for people of color

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, have more serious complications from the disease, and die from it more often than white women.2

Another study found that African Americans with lupus had more organ problems, more active disease, and less social support than whites.2 In fact, black people die much more frequently because of lupus than white people, and at a much younger age – about 13 years younger, on average. This shows how important it is for people with lupus to get diagnosed and treated early, so they can avoid the most serious damage from the disease.3,4

What factors could be behind these differences?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently funded several large studies to understand the differences in lupus among people of different ethnic backgrounds. The researchers from these studies have reported a number of important factors that may be related to these disparities:5

  • Depression is a factor in lupus. It can lead to worse health on its own, but it can also make people feel less inclined to look after their health and less supported by their health care team. Black women with lupus have worse mental health than whites and are diagnosed less often with depression, so they may be left untreated.
  • Racial discrimination and the stress it causes can lead to worse health in lupus. Black women are more likely than whites 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. However, that kind of diet is uncommon in the U.S., especially among people who don’t have access to healthy food options.
  • African Americans and Hispanic people with lupus were found to be less consistent in taking certain medicines important for treating the disease and preventing major damage.

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