Teenage girls who are classified as very obese – defined as having a body mass index in excess of 35 – may also have a heightened risk of developing multiple sclerosis, or MS, according to a new study by Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation. In fact, the girls involved in the study were four times more at risk for MS over the course of the study period than girls with a normal BMI. Interestingly, the association between BMI and MS was only detected in girls, not in boys.
It should be remembered that MS is not the only risk of childhood obesity. Children that are severely overweight during childhood have a much higher risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, prediabetes and sleep apnea. Of course, there is also the unfortunate possibility of stigmatization and low self-esteem.
Obesity Increases MS Risk in Girls, but Not Boys?
In order to conduct their study, researchers examined the health data of 75 young people ranging in age from 2 to 18. All of the teens and children had been diagnosed with MS, and all of their BMIs had been measured prior to the diagnosis. Next, the researchers compared that data with data from over 913,000 other young people who had not been diagnosed with MS. They determined that higher pre-diagnosis BMIs were more common in females from the group diagnosed with MS than in females from the group not diagnosed with MS.
The findings indicate that the prevalence of MS is likely to increase so long as the prevalence of obesity in children increases as well, according to Dr. Annette Langer-Gould, one of the lead researchers behind the study.
However, it should be noted that the MS/obesity study only found a link of association, not necessarily one of causation. It could be possible that children in the early stages of multiple sclerosis – before a diagnosis is even made – have trouble exercising due to the onset of MS. At the same time, the study findings disagree with this notion because the link was detected only in girls, and not in boys.
The Effects of Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a condition in which the nerve cells of the spinal cord and brain are attacked by the body’s own immune system. This results in symptoms such as tremors, weakness, loss of balance and numbness, all of which may become progressively worse over the course of the individual’s life.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS only occurs in no more than 2 out of every 100,000 children. However, children may experience symptoms that adults rarely do, including lethargy and seizures. It’s easy to see how these types of symptoms, even in their preliminary stages, could mitigate a child’s ability to exercise.
Exploring the Link Between Obesity and MS
According to Langer-Gould, inflammation in the body – something directly caused by obesity – may be a precursor of multiple sclerosis. In addition, estrogen, a hormone far more prevalent in females than in males, is known to cause inflammation as well. When all of this inflammation compounds, it increases the risk for MS. This may help to explain why the link between obesity and MS is found in girls, but not in boys.
Other experts are excited by the findings of the study but say that more research will be needed in order to confirm them. Existing studies have already discovered a possible link between MS and obesity in adults. A new direction for research might be to test whether estrogen may play a role in MS risk.
The Bottom Line
A new study by researchers in Pasadena, California finds that female children and teenagers who are obese are also more likely to develop multiple sclerosis. The full text of the study can be found online in the medical journal Neurology.