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New Studies Look at Lifestyle Factors in Terms of Who Gets MS and Improving the Daily Lives of People with MS

December 5, 2013

One of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s priorities is to drive research on wellness and lifestyle, where advancements can change quality of life with MS on a daily basis. These studies are also offering additional clues to risk factors that help determine who is more likely to develop MS, which may lead to strategies to end MS forever through prevention. Here is a roundup of new findings in this area, reported from around the world:

Exercise and Memory: Victoria Leavitt, PhD (Kessler Foundation Research Center, West Orange, NJ) and colleagues conducted a small, pilot study to determine the effects of aerobic exercise on memory in two people with MS and memory impairment. Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the volume of an area of the brain associated with memory, called the hippocampus. One person was randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise program (stationery cycling) and the other to a non-aerobic exercise program (stretching), each consisting of three 30-minute sessions per week for 12 weeks. Before and after the program, MRI images were taken to assess the size of the hippocampus; functional MRI images were taken which can assess real-time brain activity; and memory assessments were also conducted.

Aerobic exercise resulted in a 16.5% increase in hippocampal volume, a 53.7% increase in memory, and a significant increase in hippocampal activity. No significant changes occurred in the person doing nonaerobic exercise. (Neurocase, published online October 4, 2013) These preliminary results need further confirmation, but they showcase the potential of exercise to provide broad benefits for people with MS, in line with an emerging body of evidence. The National MS Society is funding several studies exploring these potential benefits of exercise, including a trial of aerobic exercise as a strategy to treat cognitive dysfunction (read more here).

Fatty Fish and MS: Maria Bäärnhielm, PhD, and colleagues (Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm) studied whether fatty fish intake was associated with whether or not a person develops MS. They looked at a sample of 1,879 people with MS and 4,135 controls without the disease who had answered questionnaires as part of the Epidemiological Investigation of MS, a study comprising Swedish-speaking subjects between ages 16 and 70 from certain areas of Sweden. Fatty fish, such as herring, mackerel, tuna, salmon and trout, are a major source of vitamin D, which has been associated with decreased MS risk (read more here). The team analyzed survey answers  concerning intake of fatty and lean fish intake, sun exposure and other factors, as well as blood samples (to analyze vitamin D levels).

Frequent fatty fish intake was associated with decreased occurrence of MS; no significant association was found between intake of lean fish and MS.  Among 1,178 cases and 1,410 controls for whom blood samples were available, vitamin D levels were higher in those with high fatty fish intake. This work was supported by the Swedish Medical Research Council and other agencies. (Multiple Sclerosis Journal, published online October 24, 2013)

This study adds to the growing body of research suggesting the possible benefits of vitamin D for people with MS and the role of vitamin D in lowering risk of developing MS. A Society-funded clinical trial of vitamin D supplementation is ongoing in people with relapsing-remitting MS.

Looking at Lifestyle: The Ausimmune Study, partly funded by the Society, was undertaken to investigate whether increased exposure to sunlight and vitamin D may be protective against MS in people who had not yet been diagnosed with MS, but who had experienced a first neurologic episode that often leads to MS (CIS -clinically isolated syndrome).* In the current study, Anne-Louise Ponsonby, PhD (Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne) and colleagues used this unique population to study whether various lifestyle factors were associated with the development of CIS, including current and past tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol use, physical activity patterns, blood pressure and body measurements.

The risk of developing a CIS increased by 79% in people who had ever smoked, but none of the other factors in the study were associated with increases in risk. (Multiple Sclerosis Journal 2013;19:1717)

Funded as well by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and others, this study lends further evidence to the harmful effects of smoking in people with MS. Read more about research about “who gets MS”.

*Read more here and here about previously released findings from the Ausimmune Study.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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