More than 400,000 people in the United States have multiple sclerosis, and someone gets newly diagnosed every hour, according to the National MS Society. But could these MS patients have done anything to prevent the chronic autoimmune disease?
Based on what experts know about MS, the answer is no — or at least not yet. One reason effective prevention measures have yet to be developed is that the cause of multiple sclerosis is still not fully understood.
Researchers believe that a combination of factors, both genetic and environmental, contribute to the development of multiple sclerosis.
Understanding Factors Involved in Multiple Sclerosis: Reducing Your Risk
There are a number of key factors that seem to be related to developing multiple sclerosis. They include:
Hereditary propensities that come from your family appear to be a factor in multiple sclerosis risk. Tanuja Chitnis, MD, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Partners Pediatric MS Center at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, says that in studies of identical twins, about 25 percent of people who have an identical twin with multiple sclerosis end up developing MS themselves. Dr. Chitnis also says that the incidence of MS in the general population is 1 in 100,000 people, compared with a 3 to 5 percent incidence in people with a first-degree relative with MS (a sibling, parent, or child). Although you can't change the family you're born into, eventually experts hope to learn enough about what causes MS to be able to tell people with a family history of MS what they can do to decrease their risk of developing the condition.
The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a member of the herpes family of viruses, has been linked to MS, but has not conclusively been identified as a cause of multiple sclerosis. EBV is extremely common; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 95 percent of people in the United States between the ages of 35 and 40 have had this virus at some point in their lives. In children, it looks just like the common cold; in adolescents, it can develop into mononucleosis.
It is impossible to entirely avoid exposure to a virus this widespread without completely withdrawing from society. However, avoiding contact with people who are sick and washing your hands frequently during cold and flu season and after time spent on planes and other forms of public transportation are general illness prevention techniques that help. And while avoiding viral infections now may or may not protect you against developing multiple sclerosis in the future, staying healthy can certainly contribute to your quality of life in the short term.
According to the Partners Multiple Sclerosis Center, multiple sclerosis has a higher incidence in North America, southern parts of Australia, and northern Europe, suggesting that the farther you live from the equator, the greater your risk for developing multiple sclerosis.
Does that mean you should pack up and move to a warmer climate? Not necessarily. The link between vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, and MS could explain why areas closest to the equator typically have the lowest rates of multiple sclerosis. Research indicates that vitamin D, which the human body generates in response to sunlight, may play some role in protecting against MS. It has yet to be determined whether taking a vitamin D supplement might carry the same benefit as exposure to sunlight appears to do. If you already take vitamin D supplements, you can be confident in the benefits that experts do know about; Vitamin D helps boost immune system function and may aide the body in absorbing calcium.
According to Chitnis, the biggest diet-related factor in the possible prevention of multiple sclerosis is vitamin D. Higher levels of vitamin D, which is added to milk and some cereal products, have been linked to a lower risk of MS in several studies.
Still, other dietary factors have also been linked to a lower risk. Caffeine, green tea, and tart cherries may all help ward off multiple sclerosis, research presented at the Experimental Biology 2008 meeting suggests. And resveratrol, the compound in red wine that has already received great health press, has shown promise in another multiple sclerosis-related study.
Research on multiple sclerosis is ongoing, but until we know more about the cause of MS, we can't know how to prevent it. Doing your best to be mindful of things you can control (such as making modifications toward a more healthful diet) is certainly worth pursuing, in any case.