Multiple sclerosis rates in Utah are some of highest in the nation

Mar 22, 2024, 5:00 PM

A sign for Intermountain Health's Kem. C Gardner Transformation Center outside the building...

Doctors from Intermountain Health are looking into factors that contribute to multiple sclerosis. They spoke with reporters on March 22, 2024 about why Utahns are more likely to trigger the autoimmune disease than the rest of the nation. (Heather Peterson)

(Heather Peterson)

SALT LAKE CITY — People in Utah are two-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis than most Americans. Doctors at Intermountain Health are trying to figure out why one in every 300 Utahns is diagnosed with MS.

Elsewhere in the U.S., it is one in every 600 or 700.

Factors that contribute to multiple sclerosis and Utah rates

MS is more common in white people of northern European descent compared to other ethnic groups and is particularly high in the state of Utah.

Doctors say genetics play a major factor.

“It’s more that there’s a predisposition that can be passed on,” said Dr. Timothy West, a neurologist at Intermountain Health. “Then certain things in the environment, and how you grew up, and things you’re exposed to can then trigger those genes.”

West says Vitamin D deficiency has been identified as one of those major triggers.

“When you are closer to the equator, you tend to be out in the sun more,” West said. “You tend to get more vitamin D from the sun. Since we live farther in the north, we end up not getting outside as much, and when we do we are a little bit worried about skin cancer, so we cover up, and as a result, we don’t get as much vitamin D.”

Some other triggers include the Epstein-Barr virus, also called human herpesvirus 4, and modifiable risk factors, like smoking.

But Dr. West also mentioned that women are three times more likely than men to trigger the autoimmune disease because hormones can often cause an immune shift in the body. It is particularly prevalent in postpartum women.

Importance of getting a diagnosis

Tina Gomez has been an MS patient for 29 years now. She was diagnosed with the disease when she was 27 years old and had a 2-year-old daughter.

“I had numb and kind of tingling on my right side, and didn’t really know what was going on with it, so we ended up going to a neurologist,” Gomez said.

Symptoms can vary between patients and can be mild or severe, depending on where the central nervous system is affected. However, doctors say there are new medications that can help those with MS live high-quality lives with lower levels of disability than ever before.

“It was a lot to take in at first,” Gomez expressed. “It was scary, but I have to say I feel like it’s a manageable disease, and that’s what I have been able to do with it.”

West states “time is brain” and the sooner a person with MS is diagnosed, the sooner they can receive treatment, and prevent future brain damage. Early detection leads to the best outcomes.

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Multiple sclerosis rates in Utah are some of highest in the nation