Does Race Play a Role in Multiple Sclerosis Susceptibility? | MyMSTeam

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MS Prevalence by Race and Ethnicity: In the Black Community and More

Medically reviewed by Federica Polidoro, M.D.
Written by Aminah Wali, Ph.D.
Updated on March 15, 2024

Your race or ethnicity can influence many aspects of your life, including how you’re affected by multiple sclerosis (MS). Although living with MS can be challenging for anyone, different populations may be more likely to have MS or experience different symptoms. Racial and ethnic disparities — unfair differences between racial and ethnic groups — can make it more likely for certain people to have worse health outcomes.

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with MS, you may be curious how race or ethnicity might play a role in the disease. This article will give you more information about which populations are most likely to have MS and how symptoms or outcomes can vary across populations. Research about how different populations can be affected by MS provides a better understanding of how to help all people with MS have better outcomes.

How Common Is MS in Different Populations?

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS affects approximately 1 million people in the United States. Although people in many racial and ethnic groups across the U.S. have MS, the disease may be more prevalent (common) in some groups than others. However, previous studies that aimed to understand the prevalence of MS across different racial and ethnic groups led to varying results. As research continues, our understanding of these differences may change over time.

White Americans

For a long time, MS has been thought to be more common among white people, especially those of northern European descent. However, since many clinical studies have included mostly white people, it’s not clear if MS is actually more common in white people or if other populations just haven’t been represented. More recent studies have tried to bring attention to racial and ethnic disparities and shed new light on the prevalence of MS in different groups.

Historically, MS studies mostly included white people. Newer research shows MS is about as common in Black people.

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Black Americans

A 2022 study looked at the prevalence of MS across different racial and ethnic groups. The 3,863 participants were members of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California health plan. The researchers found that MS was about as common in Black individuals as it was in white individuals. Among young adults, MS was more common in Black people than in any other group. A previous study published in 2013 — conducted in members of the same health plan — found that the risk of MS may be highest in Black individuals. Both studies show that there’s a higher prevalence of MS among Black Americans than previously thought.

Hispanic Americans

Both the 2013 and 2022 studies found that Hispanic Americans were less likely to have MS compared to Black and white people. However, Hispanic individuals were more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

A 2016 study done in Northern California found that — compared with other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. — MS was least common among non-Hispanic Asians. These results agreed with the Southern California studies, which also found that Asians and Pacific Islanders were less likely than other groups to have MS. Even though the prevalence of MS was lower, however, Asians and Pacific Islanders were often diagnosed at a younger age. A new study published in 2023 also found that Asians are usually younger when diagnosed with MS compared with other groups.

How Does Living With MS Differ Across Populations?

Even though people of different backgrounds can get MS, the reality of living with MS may be different across groups. For example, race and ethnicity may affect severity of symptoms and access to treatment.

Symptoms

The impact of MS symptoms can vary across ethnic groups. African Americans and Hispanic Americans with MS often have more severe symptoms and overall worse health compared with white people, according to a 2021 study in the journal Neurology. Additionally, the disease can progress faster — meaning MS damages the body more quickly — in African Americans compared to other groups. The researchers also reported that Hispanic Americans had higher levels of pain and mental health problems than African Americans.

Getting Treatment

Health inequities — lack of equal access to proper health care — can lead to greater health disparities for certain ethnic groups with MS. One study found that Black and Hispanic people were less likely than white people to have seen a neurology specialist (an expert on diseases that affect the central nervous system).

Another study among members of a New York Medicaid health care plan found that 30 percent of people in low-income minority groups had never seen a neurologist or received a disease-modifying therapy (DMT). DMTs are medications that reduce the rate of MS relapses and slow disease progression. Lack of access to current treatments may make it more difficult for Black and Hispanic people to properly manage MS and improve their health.

Historically, MS studies mostly included white people. Newer research shows MS is about as common in Black people.

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Disease Outcomes

Unsurprisingly, health disparities can lead to worse outcomes for some people with MS. Social issues that can affect a person’s health — also called social determinants of health — can contribute to health disparities. Many Hispanic and African American individuals are affected by social disadvantages, like lower income or less education, that can lead to more severe MS, according to the journal Multiple Sclerosis.

In addition to social issues, lifestyle factors can affect disease outcomes. Black people may be more likely than white people to have a higher body mass index (BMI) or have other health problems, like diabetes or high blood pressure, per a 2023 study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. These issues can lead to worse outcomes for people with MS and may contribute to disparities that are more likely to affect the Black community.

Closing the Gap

While living with MS can be challenging for anyone, health inequities are more likely to affect people of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds. These disparities may be due, in part, to lack of diversity in MS research studies. In the past, non-white people have been underrepresented in clinical trials for new MS therapies. Increasing representation of all racial and ethnic groups in clinical trials and research studies is an important step toward addressing health inequities in people with MS, especially in the Black and Hispanic communities. Enhanced outreach and education efforts in these communities are needed so that all people with MS can have better access to treatment and improved disease outcomes.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with MS and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 209,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

Do you have questions about the prevalence of multiple sclerosis across different racial or ethnic groups? Share in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Updated on March 15, 2024
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Federica Polidoro, M.D. a graduate of medical school and neurology residency in Italy, furthered her expertise through a research fellowship in multiple sclerosis at Imperial College London. Learn more about her here.
Aminah Wali, Ph.D. received her doctorate in genetics and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Learn more about her here.

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