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7 Things That Could Increase Your Risk of MS

A mystery stew of environment and genes—plus other factors—play a role in developing multiple sclerosis

BHM Edit Staff | 11/1/2013, midnight
Several surprising things—including your age—can raise your risk of developing multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a mysterious disease. Who gets it, why they get it and how each case of the disease can be vastly different from the next one all have medical experts pretty puzzled.

What we do know: MS is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your immune system attacks your central nervous system. We don’t know what triggers the process, but here are seven factors that might contribute.

  1. Gender. Montel Williams might be the celebrity name that comes to mind when you think about MS, but the disease disproportionately strikes women. And according to the experts, the gender gap is widening. It used to be two women to every one man, but new studies show it is approaching four women to every man. Another recent study says black women are more likely to contract MS than previously thought.
  2. Genetics. Does someone else in your family have MS? Your risk is likely increased as a result of this. The risk is 1 in 750 for most folks. It’s 1 in 40 for those with a close family member with the disease, and 1 in 4 if your identical twin has it.
  3. Birthdate. Spring babies are at higher risk of MS, according to a Finnish study. What explains this phenomenon? Your mom’s low levels of vitamin D during winter pregnancies.
  4. Age. Anyone, including children, though that’s rare, can be diagnosed with MS, but it’s more likely to occur when you’re between the ages of 20 and 50.
  5. Geography. You are at higher risk for MS the farther you live from the equator. Sweden? Check. Louisiana? Not so much. Researchers believe this might have something to do with how much vitamin D we have. Our bodies make vitamin D in response to sunlight. Live far from the equator, you make less.
  6. Smoking status. Yet another reason to give up cigarettes: Smokers and ex-smokers are more likely to be diagnosed with MS than someone who never smoked. The more you smoke, the greater your risk. Though your risk is elevated even if you no longer smoke, quitting can help. The disease seems to progress more quickly in current smokers.
  7. Autoimmune disease clusters. Some autoimmune conditions tend to occur together. That means if you have inflammatory bowel disease, you might also develop MS. There is some good news on this front: The link between lupus and MS doesn’t appear to be as strong.