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Your Immune System Goes Awry
MS is an autoimmune condition. Experts don’t know why, but some component instructs your immune system to attack your body. With MS, the center is on myelin, a fatty material that covers the nerve fibers in your brain and spinal cord. Its job is to guard them like the plastic that wraps around the wires in your phone charger. When myelin is messed up, your nerves can’t send messages back and forth the way they should. Lacking their protective coating, your nerves can get damaged, too.
You might be more inclined to get MS if you have another autoimmune disease like thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or type 1 diabetes.
The Environment Raises Your Odds
MS is more likely to attack people who live in certain places and belong to specific ethnic groups. It’s mainly common in cooler climates like Scotland, Scandinavia, and throughout northern Europe — places that are faraway from the equator. People that live close to the tropics are least likely to get it. In the U.S., it affects Caucasian people more than other racial groups.
If you move from a place where MS is rare to a place where it’s common before you’re an adolescent, you’ll also be more likely to get it. This implies that something about the place you live before puberty raises your odds of acquiring MS. It could be the amount of sunlight in a day. There’s proof that vitamin D, which your body makes when it’s exposed to sunlight, helps protect you from immune-related diseases.
Are you a smoker? Then you’re also more inclined to get MS. And you’ll plausibly have a worse case that advances faster than cases for nonsmokers. Stopping can slow the disease down, though, whether you do it beforehand or after you’re diagnosed.
If you smoke and you have sometype of clinically isolated syndrome — the first instance of MS symptoms that last for about 24 hours — you have a greater chance of a second episode and an MS diagnosis.
Is Multiple Sclerosis Hereditary?
No. You don’t get it from your mothers and fathers. But the risk factors could be in your genes. If your parents or siblings have it, you’re far more prone to get it, too.
Researchers believe there’s more than one gene that increases your odds of getting MS. Some think you’re born with something in your genes that cause you to be more likely to react to triggers in the world around you. Once you’re exposed to it, your immune system responds. New ways to distinguish genes may help answer questions about the role genetics plays in MS.
Do Sex Hormones Play a Role?
There’s increasing proof that hormones, including sex hormones, can affect and be affected by your immune system. For example, estrogen and progesterone, two essential female sex hormones, may suppress your immune system. When these hormone levels are higher while in pregnancy, and women with MS tend to have fewer instances of this condition. Testosterone, the primary male hormone, may also repress the immune response. Men’s higher levels of testosterone may partially account for the evidence that more than twice as many women as men have MS.
Can Viruses Cause MS?
Some studies have revealed that two viruses from the herpes family might be linked to MS triggers. Nearly all people who have the disease have proteins in their spinal fluid also observed in people with a nervous system disease triggered by a virus. But doctors aren’t sure if the virus was there before the MS, or if it produced MS, or it just occurred along with it.
Does Age Matter?
Yes. MS can occur at any age, but most in individuals are diagnosed between 15 and 60.
What Isn’t an MS Risk Factor?
At one point, people thought each of these might cause MS. But years of research have found no connections:
Exposure to heavy metals