Diabetes medications and more: Why MS is on the rise

When actress Selma Blair was forced to withdraw from Dancing With The Stars (DWTS) because of her multiple sclerosis (MS), it was a stark reminder of how devastating this illness can be.

MS affects the central nervous system and eventually leads to severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Nearly 1 million adults in the U.S. are currently living with MS.

Blair, who is now 50, was diagnosed with MS in her late 40s, though she believes she was experiencing symptoms for several years before that.

Fellow actress Christina Applegate also has opened up about her struggles with MS and her fears it may end her acting career. Applegate, who is now 51, was diagnosed only a year or so ago, though she too says in hindsight she was showing symptoms a few years earlier.

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Autoimmune diseases on the rise in 50-plus year-olds

Both Applegate and Blair are squarely in the demographic that’s showing a sharp rise in autoimmune diseases like MS. Autoimmune diseases are a wide-ranging group of illnesses caused when the immune system starts attacking the body itself.

While researchers don’t know exactly why this increase is happening, they have a few theories. We’re all exposed to hundreds of chemicals in our environment every day, our diets include far more processed and fast foods, we spend more time indoors, and we don’t move nearly as much as we used to.

Another possible contributing factor could be the increase in prescription drug use. Many of us, especially as we age, end up having to take one or more medicines to help manage conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and asthma. And it turns out at least one of these medicines may contribute to increased MS risk…

In fact, scientists at the University of Arizona Health Sciences have discovered a link between the anti-hyperglycemic class of type 2 diabetes medications and elevated risk of MS in people older than 45.

Could diabetes medication be a contributor?

There is growing evidence of an association between metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes and MS. The common link between the two appears to be an increase in autoimmunity.

“Our findings reinforce the need for a precision medicine approach to preventing MS in these vulnerable populations,” says lead researcher Dr. Kathleen Rodgers, associate director of translational neuroscience at the Center for Innovation in Brain Science.

Interestingly, anti-hyperglycemic exposure in people younger than 45 reduced MS risk.

“Previous research has shown a neuroprotective effect of anti-hyperglycemic medications in Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias,” Rodgers says. “For MS, we wanted to further examine age and sex differences, particularly among men and women under 45 with type 2 diabetes.”

The researchers found men older than 45 had a slightly significant increase in MS risk, while women over 45 showed a significant increase in MS incidence after exposure to anti-hyperglycemic drugs. Exposure to insulin was associated with a greater increase in MS risk.

But why did women fare worse?

The researchers speculate immune system changes that occur during the perimenopause to menopause transition may be the reason more women develop MS. Two important points from the study:

  • With the fall of estrogen at menopause, there is an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines and increases in immune cell activity.
  • It is known that diabetes, similar to MS, is linked to a pro-inflammatory state and that symptomatic worsening in female diabetics occurs during menopause due to loss of estrogenic control of insulin sensitivity and resistance.

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Can women lower their risk?

While no woman can avoid the transition from perimenopause to menopause and beyond, there are steps you can take to that might help reduce your risks of developing MS.

First and foremost, live a lifestyle to make type 2 diabetes less likely. That includes a healthy diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

Secondly, consider supplementing specific vitamins shown to affect the immune system and even decrease the risk of developing an autoimmune condition.

Vitamin C has been shown to help boost the health of certain cells that play a key role in immune system regulation. This could help prevent or possibly even reverse autoimmune disease.

Vitamin D is another key nutrient in the fight against autoimmune disease. Research has linked low vitamin D levels to an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. And Harvard investigators have found that women with low vitamin D levels are 43 percent more likely to develop MS than women with adequate levels.

The VITAL trial gives even more credibility to vitamin D. In that study researchers followed 25,871 adults and found that participants who took both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements for 5 years reduced the occurrence of autoimmune disease by 25 to 30 percent compared with those who got placebos only.

One good way to boost vitamin D levels is through careful exposure to the sun. In one study, participants who spent an average of 30 to 60 minutes outdoors every day had a 52 percent lower risk of MS compared with those who spent an average of less than 30 minutes outdoors daily.

Supplementing is certainly a good option. Just be sure to choose vitamin D3 over D2. The most important thing you need to know about the two types of vitamin D is this: The scientific community has recognized that vitamin D3 is not only superior to D2 but has proven effects on your health.

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New Study Identifies Connection Between Diabetes Medications, Multiple Sclerosis — The University of Arizona Health Sciences

Age and sex differences on anti-hyperglycemic medication exposure and risk of newly diagnosed multiple sclerosis in propensity score matched type 2 diabetics — Heliyon

Christina Applegate is ‘pretty convinced’ ‘Dead to Me’ will be her last acting gig amid MS — USA Today

Christina Applegate and MS: The Early Warning Signs She Says She Missed — Healthline

Selma Blair’s Multiple Sclerosis Timeline: Her Diagnosis, Leaving ‘DWTS,’ And Service Dog — Women’s Health

The Rising Toll of Autoimmune Diseases in Older People — AARP

Oral Antihyperglycemic Drugs — Medscape

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.