01/31/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obesity Linked With Increased Multiple Sclerosis Risk In Girls


By Jeffrey Kopman

America’s obesity epidemic could be responsible for an increasing rate of pediatric multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a new study published in the journal Neurology. Researchers found that the risk of developing multiple sclerosis was one-and-a-half to four times as high for girls who were obese.

Multiple sclerosis affects more than two million people worldwide. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 children and teens have pediatric MS in the United States alone. The condition is more common in women than in men, because of this, teenage girls are already at increased risk of developing MS. According to the study, obese teenage girls face the highest risk of developing MS in childhood.

In the Neurology study, a research team led by Annette Langer-Gould, MD, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation, looked at 75 children, between ages 2 and 18, diagnosed with pediatric MS and obtained their pre-MS diagnosis body mass index numbers. The 75 children with MS were then compared to more than 900,000 children of varying weight classes who did not have multiple sclerosis. Of the 75 children with MS, 50.6 percent were obese or overweight. In comparison, 36.6 percent of the children without MS were overweight or obese.

The researchers found that the overweight girls were more than one-and-a-half times as likely to develop the inflammatory disease as those who were not overweight. The risk increased with added weight, eventually going up to four times higher for extremely obese girls compared to those of average weight.

Contrary to a previous report from the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the Kaiser researchers found no relationship between obesity and multiple sclerosis for boys. The Swedish study did find an increased risk of multiple sclerosis in 20-year-old men who reported being moderately obese, but the Neurology study attributes this inconsistency to the fact that males develop MS symptoms later than females.

"In our study, the risk of pediatric MS was highest among moderately and extremely obese teenage girls,” said Dr. Langer-Gould, in a press release. And, she added, “The rate of pediatric MS cases is likely to increase as the childhood obesity epidemic continues."

Approximately 10,000 new cases of multiple sclerosis are diagnosed each year. Two to five percent of all MS diagnoses are children.

“Obesity is a huge concern," says Ryan Coates, MD, an assistant professor of pediatric neurology and a pediatric neurologist who treats patients with MS at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Coates says that research has shown that obesity, especially in women, increases MS risk.

What to Watch for in Your Overweight Teen

"Even though pediatric MS remains rare, our study suggests that parents or caregivers of obese teenagers should pay attention to symptoms such as tingling and numbness or limb weakness and bring them to a doctor's attention," concluded Langer-Gould.

Tingling and numbness are two symptoms of multiple sclerosis that can be especially common in children.

“Children demonstrate more sensory disorders, like numbness on one side of the body,” says Dr. Coates. “But generally, they have the same symptoms as adults.”

Although the primary MS risk factor for children is genetics, says Coates, dietary changes can help lower the risk of multiple sclerosis.

“There aren’t any foods specifically related to multiple sclerosis, but diets full of high fructose corn syrup and processed foods can increase a person’s risk,” he says. "I tell my patients that a healthy diet with a lot of grain foods and micronutrients can help lower the risk of MS.”

"Obese Girls Much More Likely to Develop Multiple Sclerosis" originally appeared on Everyday Health.