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What you need to know about the illnesses that ended Glenn Frey's life

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Autoimmune disorders affect up to 20 percent of Americans and allegedly played a role in Glenn Frey's death

It's been a tough couple of weeks for music. First the world lost David Bowie's genius and now Glenn Frey, the legendary guitarist for the Eagles, has also passed away.

Glenn Frey died Monday, Jan. 18, at age 67 at his home in California, reportedly due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia. As the world mourns, many are questioning how someone so young could have died from illnesses that aren't known for being, well, deadly.

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It all has to do with a malfunctioning of the immune system, the body's defense system against illness and injury, says Orrin Troum, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Southern California and rheumatologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

"Rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis are both autoimmune disorders, which cause the immune system to attack the body," explains Troum, who did not treat Frey. In the case of arthritis this means that the joints are destroyed while in colitis the bowels are under attack.

For patients with autoimmune disorders like these, treatment can be somewhat of a catch-22. While the conditions can be controlled well with existing medications, the meds work by lowering the body's immune system, Troum says. This helps the body to stop attacking the joints and bowels but at the same time can make the patient more susceptible to outside infections, like pneumonia.

"You have to find a balance between giving enough medicine to manage the patient's symptoms and pain while still keeping the immune system strong against outside infections," he says.

So it is possible that the combination of two autoimmune illnesses plus the immune-suppressing therapies could have turned a normal case of pneumonia into the lethal illness that eventually took Frey's life, Troum explains.

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In addition, Frey had surgery in November, which could have made him even more susceptible to infection and reduced his ability to recover.

The National Institutes of Health estimate that 23.5 million Americans suffer from one of the 80-100 known autoimmune disorders, including lupus, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis, but the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association says the number is closer to 50 million or nearly 20 percent. How exactly people contract these illnesses and why there has been a spike in recent years is unknown, but the NIH cites everything from genetics to environmental toxins as factors. However, Troum says that with close supervision by a doctor, autoimmune disorders can generally be well controlled and in most cases patients can continue to live long and happy lives.

Autoimmune disorders affect up to 20 percent of Americans and allegedly played a role in Glenn Frey's death
Image: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage
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