Childhood obesity linked to higher risk of later developing MS: Study

However, overall risk for MS is low in people who were obese in childhood

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Obesity in childhood is associated with a more than double the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) in adulthood, although the overall risk is low, according to a new study.

“Our study adds to the evidence that obesity in early life increases the risk for a plethora of diseases including MS, and not only the well-known cardiometabolic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes,” the study researchers said in a press release from the European Association for the Study of Obesity.

The findings will be presented in detail this May at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice, Italy.

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Genetic Indicators of High BMI in Childhood Linked to Higher MS Risk

Obesity increases risk for various health problems

Obesity is associated with increased inflammation and a heightened risk for many different health problems. Some studies have indicated childhood obesity can increase the risk of MS, but these have largely relied on self-reported data assessed at one moment in time.

To better understand the relationship between childhood obesity and MS risk, scientists analyzed data from 21,661 people in the Swedish Childhood Obesity Treatment Register who received treatment for childhood obesity from 1995 to 2020, and compared them with a matched control group of 102,230 similarly-aged people in the general population.

Sweden’s National Patient Register was then used to determine which of these patients developed MS over time. The analysis excluded people who had MS in childhood and those with genetic disorders that cause obesity.

… our findings highlight that obesity in childhood is associated with an increased susceptibility of early-onset MS more than two-fold.

Obesity believed to be a major driver of the increase in MS

“There are several studies showing that MS has increased over several decades and obesity is believed to be one major driver for this increase. Thanks to our prospective study design, we can confirm this theory,” the scientists wrote.

After a median follow-up time of 5.6 years, when participants were a median age of 20.8 years, 0.13% of patients with childhood obesity had developed MS. By comparison, in the control group, 0.06% were later diagnosed with MS — a more than 2.3 times higher risk of MS in people with childhood obesity even after accounting for certain confounding factors.

In both groups, the average age of MS onset was in the early 20s. This is fairly early, though the researchers said this was expected because the study had a short follow-up time and most patients analyzed were still in young adulthood.

Further analyses with a longer follow-up time will more definitively confirm how childhood obesity affects future MS risk, they said.

“Despite the limited follow-up time, our findings highlight that obesity in childhood is associated with an increased susceptibility of early-onset MS more than two-fold,” the scientists concluded. “Given that paediatric obesity is prevalent, it is likely to serve as a critical [disease-causing] contributor to the escalating prevalence of MS.”

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Childhood obesity associated with several autoimmune diseases

The team noted the overall risk for MS in people with childhood obesity is low, and much lower than for other obesity-related conditions such high blood pressure and diabetes. Still, they said a better understanding of the associations between obesity and MS risk could help in caring for patients.

“Paediatric obesity is associated with several autoimmune diseases and the leading hypothesis is that the persistent low-grade inflammatory state, typically observed in obesity, is mediating the association,” the scientists wrote.

“Understanding these pathways is crucial for developing targeted prevention and intervention strategies to normalise the risk for MS in children and adolescents with obesity,” they concluded.