With cases of multiple sclerosis on the rise, the question as to who gets multiple sclerosis is more pertinent to answer than ever. Unfortunately, just as there is no cure for the degenerative disease, there is no definitive answer to that question.
However, there are some particular risk factors that can weigh in when trying to determine if someone is likely to have multiple sclerosis. Extensive testing determines if a patient truly has MS or not but starting with the risk factors can help decide if particular symptoms that could relate to MS really do mean a diagnosis.
Understanding multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is classified in several ways. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, with the immune system producing antibodies that attack and damage the central nervous system. It is also a disease of the nervous system, since this is the part of the body that is attacked and damaged by lymphocytes (T-cells that control immune response). In addition, it is a degenerative disease, which means that the damage caused by the attacks cannot be repaired and worsen over time, causing disability in the patient.
While multiple sclerosis is not considered a common disease, the numbers have risen recently so that estimates are 2.5 times what they have been in the past. So, whereas it was previously estimated that one out of a thousand people in the United States had some type of multiple sclerosis, the new estimates increase that to one in four hundred.
But who is included in that estimate? What are the risk factors that increase the likelihood of a person developing multiple sclerosis?
Known risk factors
Several potential risk factors are known to exist when it comes to deciding who is more likely to develop MS. While some of these can be controlled by the patient to reduce the risk, others are a genetic factor that can’t be changed. Eight factors exist that are easily recognized.
- Family history. Although multiple sclerosis doesn’t point to a particular gene that is passed down from one family member to another, having an immediate family member (parent or sibling) with MS puts a person in a higher risk category.
- Race. This could have something to do with the originating climate or simple genetic makeup, but race plays a role in risk factor with multiple sclerosis. Those least likely to develop MS are those of Asian, Native American, or African heritage. Caucasians of Northern European heritage are at the highest risk based on race.
- Age. Multiple sclerosis can strike anyone at any age, and primary progressive MS is more likely to develop in older patients. However, the most potential risk is found in patients between the ages of fifteen and fifty, especially for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (which is typically diagnosed prior to the age of forty).
- Gender. Science has not discovered a reason for the correlation, and it doesn’t seem to be based on hormones. However, women are nearly three times as likely to develop MS as men, and hormone therapies don’t change this statistic.
- Climate. Again, there is no particular rhyme or reason behind the discovery. However, multiple sclerosis seems to be most prevalent in a temperate climate. More cases are found in Canada, much of Europe, the northern United States, southern Australia, and New Zealand than the average number of cases elsewhere.
- Autoimmune diseases. As is the case with most autoimmune diseases, if a patient already suffers one, the likelihood of developing another is more concerning. With multiple sclerosis, a higher risk factor is found in patients who already have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or type 1 diabetes, the last of these being at almost double the risk of the average individual.
- Infectious disease. While the correlation isn’t clear and is currently the subject of extensive research, a link between herpes virus strains and MS has been discovered. Epstein-Barr, the virus responsible for mononucleosis, remains in the bloodstream for a lifetime, and about nine out of ten people have been exposed to it. In younger children, it just looks like a bad cold. While not everyone who is exposed to EBV develops MS, new research shows that nearly one hundred percent of MS patients have been exposed to EBV, making it appear as though EBV (and the related virus that causes chickenpox) could be responsible for triggering an underlying condition that leads to the development of MS. This particular factor is low risk on its own, but when placed with another risk factor, becomes of greater concern.
- Smoking. While smoking doesn’t seem to cause the initial episode of MS symptoms, it does seem to lead to recurrence. A single bout with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis could be an anomaly, or it could be labeled as clinically isolated syndrome, which is all the characteristics of MS that never repeats, or relapses. Of patients who have that first experience, those who smoke more commonly see the symptoms return in a relapse that leads to a diagnosis of full-blown multiple sclerosis.
What to do about risk factors for MS
Because there is no guarantee either way that a person will or won’t develop multiple sclerosis, there is little to be done in advance. Those who are at greater risk should take a few precautions to help keep the body as functional as possible.
- Get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated and having children vaccinated can help stave off some of the viruses that have been linked to MS, reducing the risk of developing the disease.
- Don’t smoke. Patients with other risk factors especially should avoid or quit smoking to reduce risk of developing MS as a long-term disease.
- Stay healthy. Those who develop MS suffer more with improper diet and exercise and struggle more with excess weight than when in better shape. Maintaining a healthy diet, a regular exercise routine, and a healthy weight will have less difficulty should they become symptomatic.
- Speak to a doctor. If any symptoms of MS arise, patients should speak to a doctor so that circumstances can continuously be monitored for the earliest detection of the disease that’s possible.