If you have MS, then you understand what it is like living with an unpredictable condition. Managing MS can challenging enough individually, let alone having to worry if your child will get MS. This is understandable as it is only natural to want the best for your child. If you plan on having children, you should choose a doctor and healthcare team who will help answer any questions or concerns you may have and guide you to appropriate resources and support you need. While there is a genetic aspect to the condition, it does not mean that MS is directly inherited. To be considered an inherited condition, MS would have to be passed down in a foreseeable way, which it is not.
To some extent, genetics determine susceptibility to developing MS, the course of the disease, as well as response to treatment. However, there is no single gene that causes MS. Over 100 genes may affect your chances of getting MS, but genes are only a piece of the whole. Each gene represents a tiny portion of the risk and the more of these different genes that you carry, the more your risk is increased. Therefore, there is no one or simple genetic test that can be performed to determine whether your child is susceptible to getting MS or not.
There is only a 2% chance of a child developing MS if one parent has it (1 out of 67 children) and there is around a 2.7% chance that a child will develop MS if their brother or sister has it (1 out of 37 children). Additionally, say for example one identical twin has MS, then the other would have a ¼ chance of developing the condition. Again, this shows that MS is not a truly inherited condition. Moreover, while MS can occur more than once in a family, it is not likely that this will occur.
MS affects every individual differently and its exact cause remains unknown. The severity of the disease and the symptoms it presents vary from individual to individual. Studies have made it clear that MS has a complex genetic background, and new research depicts a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunologic factors.
Several genes are believed to play a role in the development of MS. The chances of your child developing MS are slightly higher if a close relative, such as you (the parent) or a sibling, has the disease. Various studies have shown that individuals with MS are born with a genetic susceptibility to react to specific environmental agents. Such agents may heighten or trigger an autoimmune response in the body.
Epidemiologists have done several studies and found an increased pattern of MS in countries that are located furthest from the equator. This correlation has some believing that vitamin D may be a possible influential factor. Vitamin D helps maintain healthy bones / teeth and improves the function of the immune system, thus supplying a protective effect against multiple diseases and conditions (one of which is multiple sclerosis). If you live near the equator, then you are exposed to more sunlight and as a result, your body produces more vitamin D.
MS is considered a disease that affects the immune system, meaning that the immune system breaks down and attacks the CNS. Studies have determined that the myelin sheath is directly affected, though it is not yet known the exact factor that prompts the immune system to attack the myelin. Research is still underway in uncovering what causes the immune cells to attack and the methods that can be used to control or rather stop the advancement of the disease.
What other risk factors can trigger MS if you have the genes that make you more susceptible to MS? The strongest contenders that play a part include the following:
- Age (MS typically strikes between the ages of 20 and 40)
- Sex (Women are 2-3 times more likely to develop MS than men are)
- Exposure to the Epstein Barr virus
- Ethnicity – of northern European descent
Reducing the risks
While you cannot control your family history, there are ways in which you can help reduce the risk that your children will develop the condition:
- Eat healthy foods and maintain a healthy weight
- Do not smoke
- Get lots of vitamin D naturally through direct sunlight and consider taking vitamin D supplements to build your bones and improve resistance against particular diseases
- Control weight gain in pregnancy
- Control diabetes during pregnancy
- Keep in mind where your child is raised (higher latitudes = higher risk)
- Seek early prenatal care
The bottom line is that MS is not inherited, however, there is an increased risk in families who already have a family member with MS. This is due to the fact that they carry some of the same genes. Likewise, other factors also come into question when it comes to triggering the condition.
Returning to the original question “If you have MS, will your future children have it, too?” you may be hoping for a simple answer but the truth is, is that there isn’t one. As a parent, there is not much that you can do when science takes over. You can, however, take a few simple steps during pregnancy, such as getting enough vitamin D and seeking early prenatal care, in order to protect your child from developing MS later in life. If your child’s condition is diagnosed early, there are several treatments that can treat attacks and relieve symptoms. Most important, consider emotional and practical support from your healthcare team, family, friends, and loved ones.
While much of what causes and prevent MS remains unknown, one thing is for certain: any individual with MS can live an increasingly full life due to the various treatment options available today. With continuous research, steps are taken every day to prevent the progression of MS and make overall improvements in healthcare. You may not be able to predict your child’s future, but there are ways in which you can plan for it.