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Obese girls at risk of multiple sclerosis, study finds
January 30th, 2013
04:01 PM ET

Obese girls at risk of multiple sclerosis, study finds

Obese girls are at greater risk of developing multiple sclerosis or MS-like illness, according to a new study published Wednesday in the online journal Neurology.

Researchers looked at body mass index (BMI) data from more than 900,000 children from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Children's health study. Seventy-five of those children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 18 were diagnosed with pediatric MS. More than 50% of them were overweight or obese, and the majority were girls.

According to the study, the MS risk was more than one and a half times higher for overweight girls, almost two times higher in moderately obese girls and almost four times higher in extremely obese girls.

"Over the last 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled," said study author Dr. Annette Langer-Gould, a neurologist and regional MS expert for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. "In our study, the risk of pediatric MS was highest among moderately and extremely obese teenage girls, suggesting that the rate of pediatric MS cases is likely to increase as the childhood obesity epidemic continues."

MS is a chronic, debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system. "Some patients do very well and have minimal to no disability even 20 years later," Langer-Gould said, "While other patients do poorly and can be wheelchair bound in 5 years. It's a huge spectrum."

Dr. Tanuja Chitnis is a neurologist and pediatric MS specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children with 50 MS publications to her credit. She says 10 years ago MS was not recognized as a disease that occurred in children, but today evidence is mounting that obesity is a risk factor for MS in kids, particularly adolescent girls.

"This is one more piece of evidence, but really in order to make a definitive link, you need at least five or six studies showing the same thing," she says.  "You need to have an underlying biological reason, which still has not been worked out and you need to show that blocking or interfering with the biological mechanism can prevent the disease."

"The overall message is that there are an increasing number of diseases associated with obesity and particularly early obesity and that it's an important risk factor to try to mitigate. It is something you can do something about," Chitnis says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the last 30 years childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in teenagers. In 2010, more than a third of all children and teens were overweight or obese.

At Children's Hospital of Alabama, pediatric neurologist Dr. Jayne Ness has seen more than 100 pediatric MS patients, predominantly girls, whose average age at onset is 13. Ness told CNN she has noticed a rise in obesity in their MS patients, kids who at the time of diagnosis are obese.

"Does this mean that obesity is a risk factor for MS? We don't know yet," Ness said. "It's one more piece that helps us potentially better understand some of the underlying triggers of pediatric MS and may help us understand MS in general."

Langer-Gould says that while pediatric MS is very rare - only 1.6 per 100,000 children - there are red flags parents should look out for. "Constant numbness or tingling from the waist down or numbness, pins and needles sensations in the chest, abdomen or back that last for 24 hours."

Those children should be evaluated by a neurologist. Other symptoms to have checked out are collapsing weakness in the legs after modest exertion, and pain and loss of vision in one eye.

The National MS Society estimates about 10,000 children in the United States have the disease and another 10 to 15,000 have had at least one MS-like symptom. An estimated 5% of all MS cases worldwide are childhood or adolescent onset.


soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. Sherry

    I am a 60 year old who was diaognosed with MS at the age of 48 – I am 5'4" weighing 115 pounds, no obesity in my background, if anything I grew up under weight – not sure how they are connecting obesity in Peds and MS, since they are not sure what causes MS to begin with.

    January 30, 2013 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lauren

      You're not a doctor, so that's probably why you don't know why they are making the connection of MS with obesity. And fyi, there are multiple factors to just about every condition and illness known to man so just because you have MS and weren't obese, that doesn't mean that there isn't a connection.

      January 30, 2013 at 17:27 | Report abuse |
    • Pete

      One person does not determine causality. People who don't smoke can get lung cancer as well. Are you going to tell me that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer? No. It's a contributing factor that increases your chances.

      January 30, 2013 at 19:16 | Report abuse |
    • pazke

      it is likely that there are several different diseases that are currently classified as MS. As researchers learn to differentiate between them, they will most likely find that each of them has a different cause or set of risk factors.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:26 | Report abuse |
    • dx2718

      One person does not determine causality, nor does a lot of people who show a correlation. It could be that obesity itself causes MS, or it could be that latent MS causes obesity. It also could be that some outside factor, such as genetic predisposition, diet, or exposure to chemicals, causes both obesity and MS. Correlation is not causation.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:38 | Report abuse |
  2. MSer

    I agree with the above poster. I'm also a healthy weight woman and was diagnosed in my early 20s. I can't help but wonder if MS causes obesity by reducing activity levels. As an adult, I know to regulate my calorie intake because I can only participate in mild or moderate exercise, but I'm not sure children or their parents would be as cognizant about this. Are obese girls at risk of MS or are girls with MS at risk of obesity?

    January 30, 2013 at 16:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Deb

      I, too, wonder. The correlation is there, but correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Most people do not consider that and assume there is a causative relationship between the two when there may not be any at all.

      January 30, 2013 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
    • 13directors

      The article didn't say that MS causes obesity. Though those with severe MS are less active. Therefore prone to weight gain. But anyway, this article is not about you. It's about overweight youth who are showing signs of MS due to obesity.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:16 | Report abuse |
  3. K

    I was diagnosed at age 19. I weighed 95.
    I am 44 now and still weigh 95.

    I don't think it is as much of an obesity issue
    as it is possibly more of a metabolic issue.

    But hey, give the researchers some time to figure
    this thing out. It's only been known about since 1868
    so why rush? I mean hey, if we were all healthy,
    we could work and pay taxes to put an end to this deficit
    thingy, but that's just a pipe dream i'm sure!

    January 30, 2013 at 18:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pazke

      You sound as if you think no one is trying. Many doctors and scientists are working very hard to find a cause, develop treatments and ultimately cure the disease.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:28 | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      The article did not in any way suggest that everyone who gets MS was obese.

      February 10, 2013 at 20:49 | Report abuse |
  4. pegasus

    Just as a suggestion, please consider reading the book, The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. In it, Robb explains the chemical connections from the foods we consume, to Celiac disorder and auto-immune diseases, of which MS is one. I have been eating the foods outlined in this book for almost two years. In that time I have lost more than 50 pounds (while not dieting or exercising like a wild person), eliminated gout attacks (and stopped taking allopurinol), returned to very good cholesterol numbers, reduced to a healthy BP (and stopped lisinopril), almost totally eliminated migraine headaches (and stopped way too many advil), and seen my heartburn go to almost never (and stopped taking pepcid). As an experiment, I went back to eating the wrong things and everything came back, including the gout attacks which I wouldn't wish on anyone. Returning to eating the right foods restored my health. I ask people to try it for 30 days and see if they can notice the improvement. You might be very surprised. Good luck!

    January 30, 2013 at 19:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pazke

      Thank you, Dr. Wolf, for the shameless plug for your book. Next time just post under your own name.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:27 | Report abuse |
    • Suzanna

      Thank you, Pegasus! I replied to your post, but it did not show up as a reply.

      January 30, 2013 at 23:34 | Report abuse |
    • talon331

      and let me guess, the answer for MS is to boost the immune system? Yeah, I've heard that before. Lemme tell you something, ppl with MS already have an over active immune system meaning that boosting it will and most likely make it worse. How do I know this, well, let's see, I've had MS for nearly 20 years. Peddle your crap elsewhere, thank you.

      January 31, 2013 at 01:43 | Report abuse |
    • pegasus

      Pazke – my name is David, and I am not Robb or anyone else. My wife and I mentor people, at no cost, on eating Paleo because we believe in it and have had such life-changing results with it. If you are not interested, simply pass over the posts and move along. I am sorry for your anger and bitterness though. If what I posted helps one person, it will have been worth your bile.

      January 31, 2013 at 09:48 | Report abuse |
    • Celeste

      There is also a TED talk by a woman (Dr.) with MS, who through diet managed to change her symptoms and physcial reality to a much more functional paradigm. She also did this through the Paleo diet, although I do not know anything about the book you referenced. (The talk is quite fascinating as her disease was very progressive at the time of dx. and the change in diet made massive differences in her health/presumed outcome. I will try to find the name for you, but until then, i do think that food is the most common and the most reliable means of treating/changing the prognosis of a number of illnesses (heart disease, MS, possibly autism, and many other physical illnesses benefit from a more natural diet, filled with far more fruits and vegtables then most people get nowdays. (the correlation between diet and MS would be interesting to discover). Without question, our diets affect all aspects of our health, and the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables surely has an affect on the health of many or most people

      February 5, 2013 at 02:23 | Report abuse |
  5. Suzanna

    Thank you, Pegasus! My Chiropractor recommended the Paleo Solution to me and I have seen a big difference in my MS and Fibromyalgia symptoms! It is not a cure, but it truly does ease many of the difficult symptoms!

    January 30, 2013 at 23:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pegasus

      I am so very happy for you Suzanne, and delighted that it is helping. I know that gout is nothing compared to MS, but when I would have an attack, and my ankle or toes would be all bruised and swollen, I would have given almost anything for that pain to stop. My manager at work told me about Paleo, and I figured it was another fad or gimmick, but my wife and I had been trying to lose weight unsuccessfully for so long, we thought we'd just give it a couple months and see. I was just overjoyed with the body fat dropping off, but I never imagined the other changes. We've got two people in our group we help that were type 2 diabetics who no longer take insulin or have to test their blood several times a day. It's been truly amazing. I hope continued success for you. If you have any questions that we might be able to help you with, you can email at Pegasus99@rocketmail.com – I don't check it every day, but at least once or twice a week. God bless.

      January 31, 2013 at 10:00 | Report abuse |
  6. Cinderblock

    Obese is a term used to explain poor wiping habits. Never ever eat food from an obese person.

    January 31, 2013 at 00:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Kayt

    I was an overweight teen (cited here) and also had a debilitating case of mono when I was 17 (researchers have also found a link to MS with mononucleosis as a possible trigger). I am also of Scottish/English descent and female. So who knows? One or all of these things may or may not have anything to so with my MS. What I DO know, as mentioned by other posters, is that diet has EVERYTHING to so with managing symptoms. See Dr. Terry Wahls' site and TedX presentation on youtube. It is also a paleo based diet and when I can manage to stay on it, I feel all the difference in the world and drop weight rapidly. Diet should always be our first defense against medicine.

    January 31, 2013 at 01:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pegasus

      Well stated Kayt.

      "Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food" –Hippocrates

      January 31, 2013 at 10:03 | Report abuse |
  8. Lanfear

    Fat people having health problems? Who would have thought?

    January 31, 2013 at 02:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. BeauDukes

    With the exception of poverty and food deserts, if your kid is obese, you're a horrible parent.

    January 31, 2013 at 17:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. SaveOurFood

    I read a few articles linking the artificial sweetener, Aspartame, to MS and MS-like diseases. Perhaps these researchers should look into that. I've also read a lot about the many diseases caused by too much fructose (see articles by Robert Lustig from UCSF). Acesulfamate K (or potassium acesulfamate) is also suspect but no one is talking about that either. Bottom line – all these fake sugars, synthetic ingredients and overly processed foods are killing all of us and the regulators are in bed with the companies that make them so the data gets buried.

    January 31, 2013 at 20:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Celeste

      Genetically modified foods (GMF) are a huge health risk. (They are literally capable of modifying food by the molecule. over 90% of the wheat consumed in America has been modified to contain an extra molecule/chemical link that causes an effect similar to a narcotic. They are literally working to addict people to their GMO products- (be aware, and stay informed). Monsanto is one scary co.

      February 5, 2013 at 02:31 | Report abuse |
  11. empresstrudy

    Don't worry though, feminists and liberals will declare MS as the new healthy. Because nothing and I mean nothing can interfere with their drive to make people accept their own obesity in the name of self esteem.

    February 1, 2013 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. emerygeiger

    I am 48 years old and was diagnosed with MS 14 years ago. I was an overwieght toddler, super skinny child, and fat (obese) teenager. Have battled weight issues all my live. So I think there could be a relationship. As with so many medical issues we learn more about them every day. Do not condem those who are spending their lives trying to help other people by investigating every possible avenue. Even for those medical issues that the medical industry have known about for years and years, they are still finding new reasons or explanations as to causes and treatment. Thank you medical researchers for never giving up.

    February 1, 2013 at 15:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Katrina

    How about this? How about the over-hormoned and genetically modified "foods" that most people stuff into their children and is causing early periods and early puberty might also be causing weight gain? And, guess what? It might also be contributing to other health issues alike cancer and MS. So, little girls who are most likely to be eating lower quality foods are more likely to be exposed to these poisons and develop illnesses? Not really that big of a stretch – even for a liberal feminist. Go chew on a rock.

    February 4, 2013 at 20:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Celeste

      you rock katrina (soft smile). I am always a little stunned at the ignorant need to judge anyone who has a problem or in this case, health issue, that "you" as an individual don't have. The smartass, judgemental crap says far more about the individuals saying it then it does about anyone who has struggled with weight, or this disease. (not to mention now almost 40% of adults are overweight or obese). "Empress" and others who feel the need to feel superior by slamming others for any problem they don't share in are probably far more sick then anyone i have met with MS, or anyone overweight for that matter. YES, we are discussing weight issues and this disease- but there is no need to be hateful, or rude. as Katrina said, go suck on a rock.

      February 5, 2013 at 02:42 | Report abuse |
  14. Heather

    Overweight children have a diet high in grains and aren't getting enough exercise/sun. Grains are an inflammatory food, especially wheat. It has been linked to MS and other autoimmune diseases. Vitamin D comes from sun exposure and is required for proper immune function. There are also studies showing people with MS have low vitamin D levels. If kids are sitting inside all day and eating processed starchy foods, they will get fat and have a higher risk of things like autoimmune problems. I'm not at all surprised. We need to stop looking at symptoms and start looking at problems. We can't keep pretending that what we do to our bodies doesn't matter.

    February 4, 2013 at 23:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Alex

    The same diet that can cause obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. along with a host of autoimmune diseases, including MS, is the problem. Some will get some of theses problems, some will get many of them, some will get none of them... that diet is one high in grains and other foods containing anti-nutrients which can cause gut perforation and then an auto-immune response... A diet high in grain is often also high in other forms of sugar, hence the associated problems with obesity and disease. Do some searching..."grains and auto-immune" "antinutrients in grain" "gut permeability" Learn for yourselves, grain is not a healthy food for any person, grains are pushed on us for the sake of commerce and not for human health....don't take my word for it, take the time to learn.

    February 5, 2013 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. kc

    Somehow the post I wrote earlier never showed up. Trying again...

    My mom died of this disease in 2011. She was 59. She was never overweight in her life. I suspect that m.s. is more than one disease. I also suspect that m.s. has something to do with exposure to children and thus possibly exposure to a common childhood illness. My reasoning is that women are more likely to get m.s. Women have traditionally done more hands-on child care. M.S. is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, which are the childbearing years. I'm not a doctor, just the daughter of a victim who has spent a lot of time thinking about this. On a hunch, I thought that if my theory about exposure to childhood illness were correct, certain people should be more at risk, for instance teachers. So I did a Google search to find out if anyone had looked at that, and lo and behold they had, and what do you know. Teachers' risk of developing M.S. is through the roof. I did note as I went through the papers I found in my mom's house after her death that she had mono shortly before developing symptoms of M.S. She was also somewhat underweight and she smoked. She was also of European ancestry (English, French, Scottish, Irish, etc.). There were some other things I learned from her medical records as well that, who knows, might have been a factor. Also, my mom was not a teacher... but shortly before she started to show symptoms, she was working in an inpatient psych ward with mentally ill kids, who exposed her to bodily fluids on a daily basis– urine, feces, breast milk. There was a LOT of room for exposure to pathogens common in kids. Like I said, I'm not a doctor...

    February 8, 2013 at 00:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Stephanie h

    While the MS article is interesting I see no confirming data to support the hypothesis. MS appears to be a genetic problem with a group of symptoms all of which are not fully identified. It does appear to be female dominant, it appears an additional identifier would be unexplained tenancy to obesity. If a report is to be made include the data please. S

    February 10, 2013 at 11:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Courtney White

    Hello Multiple Sclerosis community. My name is Courtney and I am working with a student group from UMUC to complete market research on the MS patients in the US. We are doing this for a company named B-Temia who has created a mobility assistive device that has shown promise for increasing mobility in patients with currently mobility insufficiencies. We are trying to show B-Temia that this device would be beneficial to the MS community. We have made a survey up and our trying to get as much feed back as possible so that they can go forward in their regulatory process. The survey is completely confidential and voluntary, but we need your help in convincing them to market it to this community.

    Survey link: http://fluidsurveys.com/surveys/team-b-temia/team-b-temia-ms-market-analysis-survey/

    Comapny website: http://www.btemia.com
    School Web site: http://www.umuc.edu

    March 15, 2013 at 10:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Courtney White

      I would also like to know how the community feels about a device such as this. Do you think it would be beneficial? Do you think it would be covered by insurance? If not would you be willing to pay for it? If yes, how much. You feedback is very important to our research. Thank you for your help!!

      March 15, 2013 at 11:01 | Report abuse |
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