Can You Prevent Multiple Sclerosis? How Certain Lifestyle Choices Impact Risk for MS

No one can predict the future – although weather forecasters and insurance companies do their best, with varying results! We still have no way of knowing who will develop multiple sclerosis, but by looking at past patterns, experts have been able to identify a number of factors that can affect our risk. Many of these risk factors for multiple sclerosis, such as sex, age, genes and where you live in the world are unfortunately beyond our control. It is possible though, to minimise the risk associated with some factors, through lifestyle choices.

Obesity and MS

We know, for example, that being overweight (having a body mass index [BMI] of more than 25) significantly increases your chances of developing MS. A study conducted at the Raúl Carrera Institute for Neurological Research in Buenos Aires, Argentina found that people who are obese (with a BMI over 30 kg/m2) at age 20 years are about twice as likely to develop MS later in life compared with people who are not obese. Interestingly, the study also found that people with higher BMI levels had increased levels of the hormone leptin, which regulates weight, appetite and immune response. The researchers suggested that leptin promotes inflammatory responses in the body and this may explain the link between obesity and MS.

It could also help partially explain why the incidence of MS has increased in recent years. Of course, being overweight is associated with many other health risks too, so if you struggle with the scales, speak to your doctor who will be able to give you advice and refer you for support if need be.

Smoking and MS

Everyone knows smoking puts you at greater risk of diseases like lung cancer – but did you know it can increase your risk of developing multiple sclerosis too? Exposure to cigarette smoke appears to be an environmental risk factor for MS, increasing the chances of developing the disease by one and a half times compared with those who are not exposed. What’s more, the more you smoke, the higher the risk. While you can’t go back in time and prevent yourself from starting in the first place (if only), you can reduce the risk by quitting right now.

Also, if you have MS it’s definitely worth quitting as a number of studies suggest smoking can cause the disease to progress more rapidly – and smoking is associated with a greater risk of conversion from relapsing–remitting to secondary progressive MS. If you’re keen to give up, speak to your doctor about a structured cessation plan. Studies show that smokers who receive a combination of counselling and medication have the highest success rate when it comes to quitting.

No one can predict the future – although weather forecasters and insurance companies do their best, with varying results! We still have no way of knowing who will develop multiple sclerosis, but by looking at past patterns, experts have been able to identify a number of factors that can affect our risk. Many of these risk factors for multiple sclerosis, such as sex, age, genes and where you live in the world are unfortunately beyond our control. It is possible though, to minimise the risk associated with some factors, through lifestyle choices.

Alcohol and MS

If you like a glass of wine with dinner, then here’s some good news. Moderate alcohol consumption could actually reduce your risk of developing MS. One recent study found that people who drank alcohol were less likely to develop the disease than those who didn’t. While the researchers found that the more you drink, the lower your risk, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with a number of other health issues, including liver disease and dementia, so the study is absolutely not a green light to hit the town every night.

Experts recommend that women shouldn’t drink more than 2–3 units a day (equivalent to one large glass of wine), and men no more than 3–4 units daily (up to two pints of standard strength beer). Binge drinking in particular is associated with a number of health risks, so know your limits and keep track of how many glasses you’re having. If you have MS already, it’s fine to enjoy a drink now and again. In fact, a study found that moderate consumption of alcohol could slow the rate at which the disease progresses in relapsing–remitting MS. Again, though, moderation is key.

Alcohol can have a powerful impact on the central nervous system, affecting balance, co-ordination, speech and thinking. In other words, all the things that you may already be struggling with! What’s more, alcohol can interact with certain prescription drugs, so discuss this with your doctor if you are taking any medication. Unfortunately, there’s also the risk of alcohol dependency, which can affect anyone, but may be higher among people with MS due to the effect it has on the central nervous system.

Leading a Balanced Lifestyle

We all overdo it sometimes. And, let’s face it; life would be very dull without the odd blip. But whether or not you have MS, eating a healthy, balanced diet and not drinking too much or smoking makes sense. No-one’s suggesting you live on just lettuce leaves, or swap the occasional ‘vino’ for kale smoothies; the key is moderation. Eating and drinking sensibly most of the time means you can enjoy the odd treat the rest of the time. After all, come rain or shine, looking after your health is the best life insurance policy on the market.

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Donna Sullivan
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Donna Sullivan
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