Since 2003, March has been designated Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month to draw attention to the crippling diseases of the central nervous system. This year, March 13-20 is also Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week. As of 2019, almost one million people in the United States are living with multiple sclerosis (MS). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), MS is “an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system disrupting communication between the brain and other parts of the body.” NIH also states that many believe MS is an autoimmune disease—meaning that the body launches a defense attack against its own cells.
The WHA Information Center analyzed claims for MS from October 2018 to September 2021. The age group with the highest hospital visit count during this period was 61-70, followed closely by the 51-60 age group. The average age of an MS-related visit was 56 years old. The graph highlights visit counts, rather than diagnosis age.
Women accounted for almost 75% of all MS hospital visits during the year studied, aligning with the national data showing women are three times as likely to be affected by MS as men. The ZIP code with the highest count of visits for MS was in Milwaukee County. The next highest ZIP code was in Manitowoc County.
NIH reports that most people’s first symptoms of MS appear between the ages of 20-40. There are many initial symptoms of MS, including prickling, or “pins and needles,” double or blurred vision, color distortion for red/green shades or blindness in one eye. Other symptoms include difficulty with balance and coordination, speech impediments, tremors, muscle weakness in extremities and in some cases, partial or complete paralysis. There is currently no cure for MS, but certain medications may help slow and control symptoms.
Risk factors researchers have found that may possibly cause MS include the following:
- After being exposed to a certain type of slow acting virus like measles, herpes or Epstein-Barr, some researchers theorize that MS can develop in genetically susceptible people.
- Some researchers looked at connections between nutrition and MS. There are ideas surrounding a diet rich in saturated fat intake as well as deficiencies in fish oil and vitamin D that may increase one’s risk of MS.
- A theory posits that those living closer to the equator are exposed to more sunlight and therefore are less likely to experience a vitamin D deficiency, decreasing the risk of developing MS.