Multiple sclerosis is a devastating disease that affects millions of people around the world.
Because this disease tends to have clusters in certain areas and in certain families, doctors and researchers have had a difficult time determining the exact cause.
Is multiple sclerosis hereditary? Although there has been a great deal of research on this subject, this remains a very complicated topic.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
Our nervous system is made of millions of neurons that pass messages rapidly throughout the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves.
These neurons are coated with a protective coating called a myelin sheath, which insulates and protects them.
According to Genetics Home Reference in multiple sclerosis, a person’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath, causing a variety of negative and debilitating effects.
There are several kinds of multiple sclerosis or MS. The most common type is called relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
In this type of MS, people have periods where they feel well with occasional relapses in which the condition becomes very severe.
Each relapse leads to a permanent loss of ability and worsening of symptoms in a stair-step manner.
There are several genes that are involved in creating and maintaining the myelin sheath.
In addition, there are several genes that influence the immune system. Some of these genes have been found to contribute to one’s risk of the disease.
Regardless of the type of multiple sclerosis, most people with this disease will eventually become permanently disabled from the disease.
Although there are many treatments, these merely delay the disability rather than stopping it altogether. There is currently no cure for this disease.
Symptoms of MS
Although the symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary with each case, there are several common factors.
According to WebMD researchers have found that for many people, the initial symptoms involve their eye, including blurry vision, eye pain, and dullness of color perception.
Because nerves are affected by the disease, many people initially notice numbness and tingling in different areas of their bodies.
Over time, symptoms progress to become more serious and noticeable. People lose coordination and find it hard to walk or perform other daily activities.
Many with MS lose control of their bowel and bladder, or even the ability to speak.
Because these symptoms usually begin when a person is relatively young, in their 20s through 40s, this can have an immense impact on daily life.
All nerves are at risk of autoimmune attack in people with multiple sclerosis. As a result, almost every area of the body can be affected.
Many people with this disease develop depression, anxiety, and altered thinking in addition to the physical symptoms.
While a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis once meant disability and an early death, this is no longer the case.
Many people are able to keep their coordination and sensation for increasing amounts of time due to modern treatments and a better understanding of the disease. While multiple sclerosis is a challenge, it is no longer a death sentence.
Risk Factors for Multiple Sclerosis
The risk factors for multiple sclerosis are varied, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact cause.
Experts at Mayo Clinic have found that the following traits make a person more likely to develop the disease:
- Age. People between the ages of 20 and 40 are more likely to develop the disease.
- Gender. Women are twice as likely to develop multiple sclerosis.
History of autoimmune disease. People who have other autoimmune diseases such as lupus are more likely to get MS.
- Family history. If other people in your family have the disease, you are significantly more likely to develop it.
- Living in a temperate climate. MS is more common in the United States, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and southern parts of Australia.
- Caucasian race. White people have higher rates of multiple sclerosis, although this may be due to the fact that they are more likely to live in an area with a temperate climate.
- Cigarette smoking. Although the link is not well-understood, smokers appear more likely to have MS.
- A history of Epstein-Barr infection. This is the virus that causes mononucleosis.
Although these factors make people more likely to develop the disease, none of them are believed to be a sole cause.
In addition, many people develop MS without having many of these risk factors. There are no guarantees with this disease.
Is Multiple Sclerosis Hereditary?
According to National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there is significant evidence that multiple sclerosis is at least affected by genetics.
People who have a parent, sibling or another close relative with the disease are significantly more likely to develop it. The disease appears to run in certain families.
In addition, there are several gene variants that have been found to be more common in people with multiple sclerosis. Altogether, there are around 200 genes that are linked to MS in some way.
Despite these interesting links, multiple sclerosis does not appear to be purely hereditary.
Many people who have the gene variants linked to the disease remain totally healthy.
While having a relative with MS increases one’s risk, there are many people with relatives who have multiple sclerosis who never get the disease.
Many researchers believe that multiple sclerosis is caused by a genetic susceptibility that is then activated by certain environmental factors.
This would explain why both heredity and the environment appear to contribute to overall risk.
However, some scientists remain hopeful that they can find a purely genetic cause as this will allow for earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment.
There is also a possibility that some forms of MS are totally hereditary while others are not.
According to Multiple Sclerosis News Today, A recent study found a gene that can cause multiple sclerosis on its own when mutated.
There may be several different causes of this disease: some hereditary, some environmental, and some a combination of the two.
A Complicated Disease With Complicated Roots
Despite evidence that there is a genetic basis to multiple sclerosis, there are also environmental factors that appear to have a strong effect on one’s chances of developing the disease.
According to US National Library of Medicine, the disease is more prevalent in temperate areas, especially in northern latitudes.
Many scientists believe that this is due to a lack of ultraviolet light or a deficiency of vitamin D.
Multiple sclerosis also appears to be linked to other factors. People who smoke have a higher risk, as do people who have had certain viruses.
The fact that it has increased recently and the fact that it is linked to higher socioeconomic status also suggest that there are some environmental causes.
Some of the links to multiple sclerosis that appear to be due to genetics may actually be due to autoimmune activity.
Autoimmune diseases are known to be heavily influenced by genes in general. Because MS is linked to other autoimmune diseases, there may be confounding factors that are not entirely genetic.
Future Research on MS
According to National Multiple Sclerosis Society, much of the current and planned future research on this disease is intended to identify and treat the root cause.
In addition, researchers are looking at new treatments for the disease that address both symptoms and root causes.
For instance, there are several anti-oxidants and vitamins that may reduce disease activity.
Vitamin D, in particular, appears to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis.
Treatments and drugs that modulate the immune system also seem to help people with this disease lead longer and healthier lives.
Researchers are also working to understand how exercise affects the disease. Several studies suggest that exercises such as those seen in this video can help people with multiple sclerosis to retain their balance, coordination, and abilities longer.
However, people with MS often see worsening symptoms when they raise their body temperature, so exercise may not also be helpful.
Understanding the genes involved in multiple sclerosis will open up new avenues for treatment.
Genes help to make proteins that can have a variety of effects in the human body.
Understanding the proteins involved in MS will allow new drugs to be made that address these root causes.
People may also be able to be tested earlier with simple blood work, allowing earlier treatment and less loss of ability before the diagnosis.
Can You Lower Your Risk of Multiple Sclerosis?
There are no known ways to prevent multiple sclerosis. However, there are ways to reduce one’s risk factor and thus to reduce the risk of developing the disease.
For example, people can quit smoking if they are concerned about this risk factor.
According to Mayo Clinic, increasing intake of vitamin D may help to lower risk of MS. Many researchers believe that the lack of this nutrient is what causes the link between multiple sclerosis and latitude.
This makes sense because vitamin D is known to contribute to a healthy immune system.
Is multiple sclerosis hereditary? While there is conflicting evidence, it appears to be at least partially so.
However, there are also environmental factors that contribute to the disease.
Regardless of the cause, early diagnosis and treatment are essential so patients can keep their abilities and health for a lifetime.