Children who are obese are at risk of developing a number of diseases. Could multiple sclerosis (MS) be one of those diseases?
Results from a recent study showed that overweight and obese girls were more likely to develop MS or clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) than girls of a normal weight.
MS is a potentially crippling disease in which the immune system damages the protective layer that covers the nerves. This damage can interfere with the communication between the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body, which may hinder the ability to walk or speak clearly. CIS is a term used to describe the first episode of MS-like symptoms. People who experience CIS may or may not go on to develop MS.
While researchers found that obesity was associated with an increased risk of MS and CIS in girls, they did not find the same connection in boys.
According to the study's authors, health problems associated with MS and CIS are likely to rise as rates of childhood obesity continue to grow.
The study was led by Annette Langer-Gould, MD, PhD, of Kaiser Permanente of Southern California in Pasadena.
Dr. Langer-Gould and colleagues wanted to see if childhood obesity was a risk factor for developing MS or CIS during childhood.
For their study, the researchers identified 75 newly diagnosed cases of MS or CIS in children. The majority of these cases were girls (55 percent). Patients were grouped based on body mass index (BMI) into four weight categories: normal weight, overweight, moderate obesity and extreme obesity.
BMI is a measure of body fat based on an individual's height and weight.
Results showed that obesity was associated with an increased risk of MS or CIS in girls but not in boys.
Compared to normal weight girls, the odds of developing MS or CIS were:
- 1.58 times higher among overweight girls
- 1.78 times higher among moderately obese girls
- 3.76 times higher among extremely obese girls.
The researchers also found a link between obesity and transverse myelitis - a condition caused by inflammation of the spinal cord, which can lead to injury of the spinal cord and a loss of feeling below the injury. Transverse myelitis can happen as the result of an episode of MS.
Results showed that children who were moderately or extremely obese were more likely to have transverse myelitis compared to normal weight or overweight children.
The population size in this study was small. As such, more research on larger populations is needed to confirm the results.
The authors concluded, "Our findings suggest the childhood obesity epidemic is likely to lead to increased morbidity from MS or CIS, particularly in adolescent girls."
Despite the authors' conclusions, Thomas M. Seman, MD, a primary care pediatrician in the Boston area, noted that MS may not be as common as this study suggests. In his practice of about 10,000 patients, only two patients have MS. These two patients were diagnosed with MS in the last five years, and Dr. Seman has been in practice for 20 years.
Dr. Seman also pointed out that the results of this Kaiser Permanente study appear to be the only evidence of this link between childhood obesity and MS.
"This study is the only one I have seen regarding this association," Dr. Seman said.
Regardless of this lack of evidence, Dr. Seman stressed the importance of controlling the obesity epidemic among children.
"The concern for child obesity is great since approximately 30 to 35 percent of all children are deemed overweight or obese," he said. "There are numerous studies which try to determine the way to reduce these numbers. All of them boil down to a few basic rules:
- Start as early as possible. What we are looking for is a lifestyle not a diet.
- Parents need to practice what they preach. Children mimic the adult caretakers. So, if the parents/caretakers are eating right and exercising, then the children will mimic this behavior.
- Provide lots of veggies and fruits and make it as many green veggies as possible. It is said that a person needs to eat the rainbow everyday. This means that someone should be eating as many different colored veggies and fruits as possible since each color represents a different antioxidant and other valuable phyto-compounds.
- Exercise at least 30 to 45 minutes a day at least three to four times per week. This should not be hard for children since they love to run outside and play.
- Drink plenty of water. Recent studies have demonstrated that more than 80 percent of the time a person feels hungry they are actually thirsty.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep stimulates the stress hormones which actually cause a person to eat more and gain weight."
The study was published January 30 in Neurology. Authors disclosed ties to Biogen-Idec, American Academy of Neurology and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases among others.