CHICAGO March 19, 2013 - Prior to WWII, the number of men and women with multiple sclerosis (MS) was approximately equal. That is no longer the case. According to the Mayo Clinic, women are at twice the risk for MS than men. Other organizations such as the Multiple Sclerosis Association suggest the risk for women is three times greater.
Why the risk has become higher for women is naturally a puzzle for doctors and researchers although statistically, the symptoms and progression of MS remain the same for both sexes.
Symptoms of MS Women (and Men) May Experience
The protective myelin sheath around nerve fibers is destroyed with MS, impeding the nerves’ ability to send clear signals to other parts of the body.
Muscle related symptoms: coordination and balance problems, muscle spasms, numbness, tremors.
Eye related symptoms: involuntary eye movements, double vision, eye discomfort, pain when moving the eyes.
Bladder/bowel related symptoms: bladder infections, difficulty urinating, frequent urination (or the urge to), diarrhea, or constipation.
Throat/mouth related symptoms: problems articulating speech, change in speech quality, rate, or volume, difficulty chewing or swallowing.
Other symptoms: sexual dysfunction, depression, hearing loss, dizziness, pain or tingling in parts of the body.
Possible Reasons Why Women Have Higher Risk for MS
It has long been observed that women with MS frequently experience a reduction in symptoms when they are pregnant. The symptoms return to pre-pregnancy levels after delivery. This leads researchers to consider the role of sex hormones in the development of MS. It cannot be the only factor since women had sex hormones and pregnancies for centuries before the increase in MS risk.
During the past 60 years women (and men) are on average more overweight or obese than their predecessors. Women smoke more and many work outside the home. They have the option of using oral contraceptives and generally start having children later in life. Young women are starting menstruation earlier, and women use chemical laden beauty products far more than men. Researchers are looking at all these variables.
Other studies hone in on environmental and genetic factors such as a study completed at Oxford University and published in the American Academy of Neurology. The researchers there studied a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene variant that is associated with MS. This gene variant makes people more susceptible to MS when it is triggered by environmental factors, although not everyone with MS has this gene variant.
The research showed that women who had MS were 1.4 times more likely to carry the MS gene variant than men diagnosed with MS (that’s 919 women compared to 302 men). The study also revealed that mothers transmitted the HLA gene variant more often to other females in their family, than to males.
The Good News
Even though there are more clues and avenues of curiosity than there are answers, the disease does not affect women more adversely than men. Plus, MS does not prevent women from getting pregnant and bearing children. This is a blessing since most people with MS live normal life spans and many will want to experience the joys and difficulties of raising a family.
You can learn more about MS, and about managing symptoms to create a fulfilling life at Healthline.
M.J. Chao et al. MHC transmission Insights into gender bias in MS susceptibility. Neurology, January 5, 2011 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e318207b060
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