Stress Across the Life Span Could Worsen MS

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system and leaves patients suffering from a host of symptoms, and now new research finds life stressors can make those symptoms even worse.

Poverty, abuse and divorce in childhood and adulthood can significantly impact the level of disability someone with MS experiences, according to researchers from Michigan Medicine.

“MS is the leading cause of non-traumatic disability among young adults, and additional research is needed to identify these external drivers of disability that can be addressed or prevented, including stress, to improve functional outcomes,” said study co-author Dr. Tiffany Braley. She is director of the multiple sclerosis/neuroimmunology division and multidisciplinary MS Fatigue and Sleep Clinic at University of Michigan Health, in Ann Arbor.

“This knowledge is needed to inform MS research as well as clinical care. Referrals to resources, such as mental health or substance use support, could help reduce the impact of stress and enhance well-being,” Braley added.

For the study, the researchers used survey data from more than 700 people with MS.

While the findings showed impact from both childhood and adult stressors on relapse after the start of the pandemic, the impact of childhood stress on disease lost significance when further accounting for experiences in adulthood.

Studies on stress and MS that don’t focus on the whole life span may miss vital information or overestimate the relationship between childhood stressors and health outcomes, the authors said.

The report was published online recently in the journal Brain and Behavior.

“Adverse childhood experiences, which we call ACEs, and other childhood stressors could impact immune, inflammatory and behavioral processes throughout life, and reduce resilience to adult stress,” said study first author Carri Polick, who completed this work while at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and is now a postdoctoral fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Duke University.

“It is important to use a life span approach in future work to better understand patterns and inform symptom management. For example, we are expanding upon this work to investigate mechanistic pathways through sleep, smoking and mental health, through which stressors may lead to worse MS outcomes including increased disability, pain and fatigue,” Polick said in a Michigan Medicine news release.

MS is an autoimmune condition affecting more than 2.8 million people in the world. It involves the brain and spinal cord, in which the protective layer of nerve cells is attacked by the body’s immune system.

The study was supported in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

More information

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has more on MS.

SOURCE: Michigan Medicine, news release, May 23, 2023

Source: HealthDay

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