A survey by the MS Society has revealed that Canada once again tops the worldwide table for incidence of MS (Multiple Sclerosis). With 291 cases per 100,000 we are far ahead of Denmark, the next country in the list. It’s the most common neurological disease among young adults in the country and every day, three more people are diagnosed. So why does MS seem to be the Canadian disease?
The short answer is that we don’t know. But, there are patterns to the disease. It seems the further you are from the equator, the more likely you are to develop MS. The top 10 countries in the MS Society’s list are predominantly Northern European, with not just Denmark featuring but also Sweden, Germany and Norway. It might be that the lack of vitamin D caused by the lower position of the sun that may have an influence, but the link between vitamin D and MS is tenuous at best. A 2013 factsheet issued by the MS Trust in the UK said “So far, initial studies have failed to show that taking supplements to increase vitamin D levels will reduce the risk of getting MS or reduce the severity of MS.” Still, the pattern suggests there might be something in it, certainly vitamin D deficiency can cause muscle spasms and weakness, which would only exacerbate the problems that MS causes (difficulty walking, paralysis, lack of balance).
As ever, there are exceptions. If the northernmost countries are most prone to MS then why do the Inuit people of Northern Canada seem immune to the disease? And why are Sardinians so prone to it, with studies in the 90s showing the island having a prevalence of 149 cases per 100,000? Again, we don’t really know because there is still so much about MS that we don’t understand. But, it’s likely that’s there’s a genetic cause and some people are just predisposed to MS whereas other people aren’t. If you are one of the people with the genetic marker for MS and you live in a country with low chances of vitamin D exposure, that can then trigger the MS you’re already predisposed towards. It doesn’t quite explain Sardinia, but small communities do keep passing genetic diseases onto each other so it might make sense.
Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that MS is very much a Canadian concern. It affects around 100,000 Canadians including actor John Medica, politician Wendy Lill and football player Michel Dupuis, who found himself discriminated against because of the disease, even before he developed symptoms. Like Dupuis, many people continue to function perfectly normally after diagnosis but the decline once MS sets in can be brutal, with an average life expectancy of 30 years after the onset of the disease. It’s a debilitating illness that tends to strike around the age of 30, just when most people are planning families and launching careers. Maybe one day there will be a cure. But, it seems likely that Canadians will lose more of their loved ones before this happens.
Until next time,
Peace, love and vitamin C!