Multiple Sclerosis Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord that affects nearly 1 million adults in the United States. MS is considered a generally complex disease. Its symptoms are highly variable and unpredictable, there is no cure, and its cause remains unknown.

To help you gain a "big picture" sense of what MS is, this article will highlight key facts and statistics about multiple sclerosis.

Woman with MS discusses scans with healthcare provider

Rick Gomez / Getty Images

MS Overview

In MS, the immune system attacks the fatty myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers within the brain and spinal cord. When myelin is damaged or destroyed, the normal transmission of nerve signals is disrupted. This can lead to various symptoms like numbness, weakness, and cognitive problems, among others.

Most people with MS experience a relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) course, where they experience relapses ("flares") of new or worsening symptoms, followed by periods of symptom improvement or recovery.

Less commonly, people with MS are diagnosed with primary progressive MS (PPMS), where symptoms worsen over time in the absence of discrete relapses.

Even though MS cannot be cured, there are treatments available to help ease symptoms. There are also numerous medications called disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) that can slow the natural progression of the disease.

How Common Is MS?

In 2017, the estimated prevalence of MS in the U.S. was 363 cases per 100,000 people in the population. This is equivalent to nearly 1 million individuals. This number is higher than previous prevalence estimates.

  • In 2010, the estimated prevalence was 309 cases per 100,000 people.
  • In 1990, the estimated prevalence was around 120 cases per 100,000 people.

It's unclear if the increase in MS cases is because more people are developing the disease or because prior reports underestimated the number of people living with MS. If the rate of MS is increasing, changes in the environment need to be studied to understand why.

MS by Ethnicity

MS is most common among White people of northern European descent. Although, recent research has shown an increasing MS rate among Black people compared to White people. Hispanic and Asian people are still significantly less likely to develop MS than White people.

Specifically, a California study reported Black people to have a 47% increased risk of MS compared to White people. Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans were found to have a 50% and 80%, respectively, lower risk of MS compared with White Americans.

Experts aren't sure why these MS demographics are changing. It's likely that environmental or social factors are involved, as the changes are too fast to be explained by genetic factors.

MS by Age and Gender

MS is generally detected in young adulthood, between the ages of 20 and 40.

That said, the disease can manifest at any age. Less than 1% of cases occur in childhood (pediatric MS), and around 2% to 10% of cases occur after age 50 (called late-onset MS).

  Number of MS Cases in the United States
 Children Less than 5,000
 Adults Nearly 1 million

In terms of sex differences, MS is three times more common in females than males.

  Estimated Prevalence of MS in the U.S. in 2017
 Female  74%
 Male  26%

Moreover, females with MS tend to have an earlier onset of disease. Their disability progression is also generally less than males, and females are slightly less likely to have primary progressive MS.

Gender differences in MS may be explained by alterations in sex hormones. This is supported by the fact that MS symptoms change with the natural change of estrogen levels during pregnancy.

Estrogen's Possible Impact on MS

Estrogen levels are high in the second half of pregnancy, which is associated with a decrease in MS relapses. On the other hand, during the postpartum period, when estrogen levels decline steeply, there is an increase in MS relapses.

Causes of MS and Risk Factors

MS is an autoimmune or "immune-mediated" disease because it involves the immune system launching misguided attacks against healthy tissue (myelin and nerve fibers) in the brain and spinal cord.

While experts believe that MS manifests as a result of a complex interplay between various environmental and genetic factors, the exact cause or "why" behind the disease remains unknown.

Some environmental factors that may play a role in MS development include:

What Are the Mortality Rates for MS?

The mortality rate in those with MS compared to the general population is increased.

What Is the Mortality Rate in MS?

The mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths in people living with MS during a specific period of time.

A 2017 Norwegian study examined people with MS who were diagnosed between the years 1953 and 2012. Investigators found that those living with MS had a seven-year shorter lifespan and a nearly threefold higher risk of death compared to the general population.

Other studies have found a similar increased mortality rate in people with MS, including an increased risk of death from heart disease, lung disease, infection, accidents, and suicide.

All said, MS is rarely fatal. If a person does "die from MS," it usually means their death was related to an MS-related complication, like a urinary tract infection (UTI) or aspiration pneumonia (lung infection caused by inhaled food particles).

Screening and Early Detection

There is no screening test for MS, and the disease cannot necessarily be prevented, considering there are factors (your genes and immune system response) that are out of your control.

Regardless, if you think you may be experiencing possible symptoms of MS, it's important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider or neurologist.

Early Diagnosis and Treatment Is Ideal

Promptly and accurately diagnosing MS and starting a disease-modifying therapy sooner than later is crucial to preventing irreversible neurological damage and optimizing your overall prognosis.

Keep in mind there are some lifestyle habits that experts believe could help stave off the disease in certain individuals or at least help lessen the disease's impact if diagnosed. 

Examples of such habits include:

  • Maintaining a normal weight
  • Having a sufficient blood vitamin D level
  • Avoiding smoking

Summary

Nearly 1 million adults in the U.S. are currently living with multiple sclerosis. This lifelong, neurological disease tends to strike in young adulthood and is three times more common in females than males.

The disease can occur in most ethnic groups, although it's more common in White people of northern European descent. Compared to the general population, those living with MS have a nearly threefold higher risk of death.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the life expectancy for those with MS?

    Studies have found that those living with MS have a somewhat shorter lifespan—around seven years—than the general population. There is emerging research, however, that MS life expectancy is now increasing. This is likely due to better treatments and overall MS care.

  • Is it better to be diagnosed with MS at a younger adult age?

    Possibly. Research suggests those diagnosed with MS after age 40 reach a higher disability level faster compared to those diagnosed with MS between the ages of 18 and 40.

  • Is pediatric MS the same as adult-onset MS?

    Not necessarily. There are some key differences. For example, the vast majority of children with MS (98%) have a relapsing-remitting course, compared to around 85% of adults with MS.

    Also, children with MS typically experience a more aggressive disease onset with more relapses early on, although they have a slower disease progression over time than adults.

  • Why are more people being diagnosed with MS?

    The answer is unclear. It could be that improved diagnostic tools have allowed the disease to be diagnosed when it otherwise could have been missed. Environmental changes might explain any increase in MS cases (if that is ever supported by research—further investigation is needed).

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