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Increasing levels of childhood obesity could potentially see more cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) as a knock-on effect, warn UK researchers.
Childhood and adolescent obesity would contribute up to 14% of the overall risk of MS by 2035, according to observational research led by Queen Mary University of London.
“Our findings highlight the potential to reduce the incidence of MS worldwide with targeted public health strategies”
They noted that previous studies had estimated that 53% of MS risk was directly attributable to environmental factors, and that up to one in five MS cases could be attributable to smoking.
But they also highlighted that smoking and high body mass index (BMI) were leading global drivers of many non-communicable diseases and caused significant premature morbidity and mortality.
The new study, involving the Queen Mary University, Barts Health NHS Trust and Oxford University, looked at previously published research from the UK, US, Russia and Australia.
Researchers used it to estimate and project the proportion of MS incidence that could be attributed to two modifiable risk factors, namely smoking and high BMI in childhood and adolescence.
Based on the previous studies, they found that around 10% of the population risk of MS could be attributed to smoking in 2015 but would start to decrease in response to the fall in smoking rates.
In contrast, the potential contribution of early life obesity to MS incidence was growing, because an increasing proportion of the population in the countries studied were obese, said the study authors.
While the proportions vary between countries, the same patterns can be seen worldwide, they said in International Journal of Epidemiology.
In 2015, early life high BMI was associated with a higher risk than smoking in the US and Australia, and an equivalent level in the UK.
The risk for high early life BMI was highest in the US, at 11%, and was estimated to increase to 14% by 2035, said the researchers.
“Shifting the focus to diseases with onset in early adulthood, such as MS, may resonate more with younger people”
Meanwhile, in the UK, high early life BMI would account for 10% of the population risk of MS in 2035, the researcher predicted.
They said that reducing the prevalence of these modifiable lifestyle risk factors was likely to have an important impact on MS incidence, as well as other non-communicable diseases.
Study author Dr Ruth Dobson, from Queen Mary University, said: “Our findings highlight the potential to reduce the incidence of MS worldwide with targeted public health strategies.
“It is not only cancer and heart disease that are influenced by smoking and obesity – shifting the focus to diseases with onset in early adulthood, such as MS, may resonate more with younger people whose lifestyle choices will have an impact on their risk of future illness.”