Childhood abuse increases MS risk

Published 07 April 2022

Suffering trauma in childhood may increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) in women in later life, according to a new study.

Experts know that abuse and neglect in childhood are associated with a higher risk of poor mental and physical health in adulthood, but they do not know if these things may increase the risk of MS.

Researchers looked at participants in the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child cohort study, which took place between 1999 and 2008. Almost 78,000 women took part, with their health being monitored until 2018.

Childhood abuse information was obtained by questionnaires and MS diagnosis was gathered from linked national health registry data and hospital records.

In total, 14,477 women had experienced childhood abuse, and 63,520 had not. Those who had were more likely to be smokers, or former smokers, which is a risk factor for MS, or to be overweight or depressed.

After adjusting for other risk factors such as smoking, educational attainment, obesity, and household income, women who had experienced childhood abuse were more likely to develop MS.

The risk was highest for sexual abuse (65% higher risk), next highest was emotional abuse (40% heightened risk) and physical abuse (31% heightened risk).

Experiencing more than one category of abuse lead to even further risk, with women having a 66% heightened risk with two categories, and a 93% heightened risk.

The researchers noted the weaknesses of the study which included the fact it was observational so can’t establish a cause. Some other environmental factors were also not accounted for. They also didn’t know at what age the abuse began, or whether they had emotional support present in their lives.

But they still concluded there could be biological explanations for the increased risk, as it’s known childhood abuse can disrupt brain and glandular signalling, promoting a proinflammatory state. “Better understanding of the risk factors and timing of risk exposures may open doors for prevention and give further insight to disease mechanisms,” they said.