Can You Prevent Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It develops when the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective coating of nerve cells (myelin sheath), which causes damage to the nerves.

The cause of MS is largely unknown, but there are several known risk factors that are associated with the onset of the disease. Read on to learn more about how you might be able to reduce your MS risk.

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Non-Modifiable Risk Factors

Various risk factors have been associated with the development of MS, but some of them are out of your control. Certain MS risk factors are "non-modifiable," which means that you cannot change them. Here are a few examples.

Age

Research has shown that MS is most common in people between the ages of 20 and 49. However, there are rare cases when children and adolescents under the age of 18, and adults over the age of 50, are diagnosed with MS.

Several studies have looked at people who eventually developed MS and determined how old they were when they were exposed to potential risk factors. Typically, people under the age of 15 have already been exposed to specific factors that will lead to MS later in their lives.

Fetuses can also be exposed to factors that drive MS development—for example, if the person who is carrying the fetus is deficient in vitamin D during their pregnancy.

Sex

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is diagnosed more often in females than in males. In fact, females are 3 times as likely to get MS. Researchers think that hormones could play a role in the difference.

How Common Is MS?

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, nearly 1 million people in the United States have the disease. It is estimated that 74% of those 1 million cases occur in females.

Ethnicity

Your ethnic background may also play a role in your susceptibility to developing MS. Although all ethnic groups can get MS, it is most commonly reported in white people of European descent.

New research has shown that Black females are more susceptible to the disease than was previously thought.

Genetics

While MS is not passed down through families or generations, people who have a close relative with the condition are at an increased risk for developing it. There could also be a genetic component to the onset of MS, which would include a person's genes and any possible genetic variants that they may have.

Variants in genes known as HLA class II and class I alleles can drive the increased risk of MS. These genes (human leukocyte antigen genes) play a role in how the body’s immune system responds to foreign invaders.

One specific HLA gene (HLA DRB15:01) is thought to be the main culprit behind MS risk. The specific gene variant is found in 25% to 30% of northern Europeans, which could explain the increased risk of MS that is seen in white European populations.

Modifiable Risk Factors

There are some risk factors associated with MS that you do have some control over. The measures that you can change are called "modifiable risk factors" and include aspects of your lifestyle.

Diet

Research has shown that when a person has continuously low levels of vitamin D in their blood, they are more likely to develop MS than people with adequate amounts of the vitamin. That's why it's important to get enough vitamin D in your diet or to take a supplement, if necessary. Another way that you can get vitamin D is by spending time outside in the sun.

It is thought that vitamin D's role in MS is also linked to the environmental risk factor of geography. People living in some parts of the world get less sunlight exposure and have lower levels of vitamin D.

Geography

MS is more prevalent in areas that are either farther north or farther south of the equator. That means that people who are born or live in these areas are at a higher risk for developing MS.

However, studies have suggested that if a person is born in a northern climate and moves closer to the equator before the age of 15, they will have a lower risk of getting MS.

Some research has found that people who live farther from the equator get less sun and are, therefore, more likely to experience low or deficient levels of vitamin D. This is especially true for people who lived in areas with low sun exposure when they were kids.

Studies have also found that people who live in areas that get little sun are more likely to develop MS at a younger age than people living in areas with more sunlight.

Lifestyle

Certain lifestyle factors are associated with the onset of MS such as smoking cigarettes and living with obesity, having excessive body fat. Smoking has been shown to increase a person’s risk for developing MS by as much as 50%. Research shows that if a person experiences obesity as a child, teen, or young adult, they are also at an increased risk of developing MS.

Exercise and MS Risk

A lack of physical exercise can play a role in the onset of MS. Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been shown to reduce a person's risk of developing MS by 31%. The importance of exercise in preventing MS starts in early adolescence.

One study found that people who participated in rigorous physical exercise for at least three hours per week had a lower risk of getting MS than people who did not get as much activity.

Gut Health

It has been suggested that smoking cigarettes and living with obesity are risk factors related to MS because of the way they affect the collection of living organisms in the gut that help keep the digestive system healthy (gut microbiome).

Since the gut influences the health of the immune system, smoking and obesity could throw off the balance in gut bacteria and, in doing so, negatively affect immune function. That being said, more research needs to be done to confirm that imbalances of gut bacteria are a driver of MS rather than a side effect of the condition. 

Infections

There is strong evidence in support of previous infections increasing a person's risk of developing MS. One viral infection, known as the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), has been identified as raising a person's risk of getting MS. EBV is one most common viruses and is associated with infectious mononucleosis (mono).

That said, just having an EBV infection alone is not a guarantee that you will develop MS. There are also other risk factors in addition to having the virus that contributes to the risk.

Ongoing MS Research

Although many risk factors for MS have been identified, the disease is still relatively mysterious. It's not yet clear exactly what causes it, and there is no cure.

Many researchers who study MS are looking at how the nervous system (the communication pathway that nerves use to send messages to and from the brain) interacts with the immune system.

People with MS have faulty immune systems, and researchers want to figure out how white blood cells (the body's immune system cells) get into the brain, cause damage, and lead the symptoms of the condition.

Once they have a better understanding of the process, the hope is that researchers will be able to develop better treatments for MS and even find more effective ways to prevent it.  

Summary

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic condition that has no cure, but there are ways to treat it. It cannot be totally prevented, as there are some risk factors for the condition that you cannot change, such as your age and genetics.

However, making some changes to your lifestyle can help reduce your risk of developing MS. For example, making sure that you get enough vitamin D in your diet and quitting smoking.

A Word From Verywell

If you're at risk for MS, whether you develop it is not something that's entirely within your power to change. You cannot control all the factors that contribute to your risk, but there are some ways that you can lower your risk.

Many of the steps you can take to help reduce your risk of MS, such as getting regular exercise, sticking to a nutritious diet, and avoiding substances like tobacco, will have a positive effect on your overall health and could even be beneficial to you if you do eventually develop MS.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the strongest known risk factor for MS?

    The risk factor with the strongest and most conclusive evidence of a link to MS is infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Children who had an EBV infection are almost 15 times more likely to develop MS later in life than kids who were not exposed, and adolescents that have had EBV are roughly 30 times more likely to get MS. Avoiding this virus is one of the most important factors in MS prevention.

  • What population is most affected by multiple sclerosis?

    Anyone of any age can get MS, but the populations that are most affected by the condition are white people of European backgrounds and people who are female. That means that white females of European descent are the most likely group to develop MS at some point in their life.

  • Can MS be stopped if caught early?

    MS is a progressive disease. Once it develops, it will get worse over time. However, the earlier that you tell your doctor about your symptoms and seek treatment the better because some treatments can slow the disease's progression.

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8 Sources
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