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Meeting Coverage:
Childhood Stress Not a Likely Trigger for MS


By Ed Susman , Contributing Writer, MedPage Today

October, 5 2013 -- COPENHAGEN -- Stressful life events in childhood did not appear to increase the subsequent risk for multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers said here.

In large Danish cohort study, children who experienced stressful life events had a weak 1.11-fold risk (95% CI 1.02-1.20) of later developing MS compared to unexposed children, according to Nete Munk Nielsen, MD, PhD, from Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, and colleagues.

However, there was a "slightly increased risk of MS" for kids who experience parental divorce (relative risk 1.13, 95% CI 1.04-1.23) compared to children who did not, they wrote in their poster presentation at the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis annual meeting.

While stressful events are often associated with risk for MS in adults, studies that have looked for an association between stress and MS in children have turned in mixed results.

The authors pointed out that a recent study found that adults exposed to emotional or sexual abuse as children were at 2.2- to 3.4-fold increased risk of MS. However, another study reported no association between physical or sexual abuse in childhood and risk for MS.

The authors analyzed Danish public health records that included nearly 3 million individuals born between 1968 and 2011. The Danish Civil Registration System contains updated information on family relations, marital status, and vital statistics on every Danish person since April 1, 1968. The researchers compiled data on parental and sibling deaths as well as parental divorce. Information about cases of MS in the study cohort was obtained from the Danish MS Registry.

The cohort represented 63 million person-years of follow-up. The records showed that 15.8% of the population was exposed to at least one stressful life event before the age of 18, with most of those events being parental divorce.

The researchers identified 3,260 individuals in the cohort who were later diagnosed with MS.

The death of a parent had a nonsignificant 4% increased risk (95% CI 0.90-1.21) of a later MS diagnosis, while death of a sibling before age 18 had a similar nonsignificant 4% impact (95% CI 0.81-1.32).

"There have been conflicting studies over whether stressful events in a person's childhood leads to MS, but in our analysis, we did not find strong evidence for this," Nielsen said during her poster presentation.

"We cannot exclude a biological effect of stress on the susceptibility to MS, but do consider adoption of unhealthy behaviors more likely to explain our findings," she added.

That may be particularly true in the findings on parental divorce. Nielsen said that children's lives may be impacted by living with one parent with reduced income, resulting in less access to healthier lifestyles. Unhealthy lifestyles have been linked to a higher MS risk.

She added that her group will continue to research which life events may confer a risk for MS and disease development.

Primary Source: European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis

Source Reference: Nielsen N, et al. "Stressful life-events in childhood and risk of multiple sclerosis" ECTRIMS 2013; Abstract P302.