Population-based estimates of humoral autoimmunity from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, 1960-2014

PLoS One. 2020 Jan 13;15(1):e0226516. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226516. eCollection 2020.


Objective: Based on US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, we attempted to provide an unbiased, population-based estimate of autoantibody prevalence overall and by age and sex.

Methods: US autoantibody prevalence estimates for detectable rheumatoid factor, anti-thyroglobulin, anti-thyroperoxidase, anti-transglutaminase, anti-endomysial, anti-GAD65, antinuclear autoantibodies, and autoantibodies to extractable nuclear antigens were estimated from the 1960-1962 National Health Examination Survey, NHANES III (1988-1994), and the NHANES 1999-2014 cross-sectional surveys. Survey design variables and sample weights were used to account for differential probabilities of selection within the complex survey design. Data analysis used SASTM and SUDAAN™ software. US Census Bureau data were used to estimate the absolute numbers of persons with autoantibodies.

Results: NHANES III data show that the overall US prevalence of having a detectable serum autoantibody is substantial in adults, in both women and men. Thyroid autoantibodies were present in 18% of US adults (31 million persons) including 10% of younger adults and 25% of older persons. Overall autoantibody prevalences increased significantly with age: 32% of US adults 60+ years of age (12.8 million persons) had at least one of the four autoantibodies rheumatoid factor, anti-thyroglobulin, anti-thyroperoxidase, or anti-tissue transglutaminase. Older women had higher levels of autoantibodies, but this was a relative difference. Autoantibody prevalence in both sexes was substantial (women 39%; men 22%). Fourteen percent of adults 60+ years of age have multiple autoantibodies.

Conclusions: Autoantibodies are present in a significant fraction of the general population, especially in older adults and women relative to men. Although all known clinically significant autoantibodies were not analyzed, these data provide an important population perspective on the scope and magnitude of humoral autoimmunity in the US. This is vital for prevention efforts to reduce autoimmune disease and helps clarify the potential impact of autoimmunity on the general population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Autoantibodies / blood
  • Autoimmunity*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Humoral*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • United States
  • Young Adult


  • Autoantibodies

Grant support

This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.