MS is commoner in women than men. In fact the incidence of MS is increasing all over the world but this seems to be preferentially in women. Now this new publication looking at cases and controls (through a process of enrichment from a large group of women with MS) is suggesting that there are marginal differences in non-natural menopause in MS females, with more cases observed in MS. Moreover, the onset of progressive MS was shorter in those with early/premature menopause (see Figures below). There were no differences with the age of onset of menarche in the study, however.
They also found an association between the number of pregnancies and the age of onset of progressive disease, with greater number of pregnancies having a protective effect (see Figure below).
The study raises some interesting points that require further investigation especially from other natural history cohorts. The major problem with case-control studies is the potential for recall bias:
Recall bias in a case-control study is the increased likelihood that those with the outcome will recall and report exposures compared to those without the outcome.
Reproductive history and progressive multiple sclerosis risk in women
Being a woman is one of the strongest risk factors for multiple sclerosis. The natural reproductive period from menarche to natural menopause corresponds to the active inflammatory disease period in multiple sclerosis. The fifth decade marks both the peri-menopausal transition in the reproductive aging and a transition from the relapsing-remitting to the progressive phase in multiple sclerosis. A short reproductive period with premature/early menopause and/or low number of pregnancies may be associated with an earlier onset of the progressive multiple sclerosis phase. A cross-sectional study of survey-based reproductive history in a multiple sclerosis clinical series enriched for patients with progressive disease, and a case–control study of multiple sclerosis and age/sex matched controls from a population-based cohort were conducted. Menarche age, number of complete/incomplete pregnancies, menopause type and menopause age were compared between 137 cases and 396 control females. Onset of relapsing-remitting phase of multiple sclerosis, progressive disease onset and reaching severe disability (expanded disability status scale 6) were studied as multiple sclerosis-related outcomes (n = 233). Menarche age was similar between multiple sclerosis and control females (P = 0.306). Females with multiple sclerosis had fewer full-term pregnancies than the controls (P < 0.001). Non-natural menopause was more common in multiple sclerosis (40.7%) than in controls (30.1%) (P = 0.030). Age at natural menopause was similar between multiple sclerosis (median, interquartile range: 50 years, 48–52) and controls (median, interquartile range: 51 years, 49–53) (P = 0.476). Nulliparous females had earlier age at progressive multiple sclerosis onset (mean ± standard deviation: 41.9 ± 12.5 years) than females with ≥1 full-term pregnancies (mean ± standard deviation: 47.1 ± 9.7 years) (P = 0.069) with a pregnancy-dose effect [para 0 (mean ± standard deviation: 41.9 ± 12.5 years), para 1–3 (mean ± standard deviation: 46.4 ± 9.2 years), para ≥4 (mean ± standard deviation: 52.6 ± 12.9 years) (P = 0.005)]. Menopause age was associated with progressive multiple sclerosis onset age (R2 = 0.359, P < 0.001). Duration from onset of relapses to onset of progressive multiple sclerosis was shorter for females with premature/early menopause (n = 26; mean ± standard deviation: 12.9 ± 9.0 years) than for females with normal menopause age (n = 39; mean ± standard deviation: 17.8 ± 10.3 years) but was longer than for males (mean ±standard deviation: 10.0 ± 9.4 years) (P = 0.005). There was a pregnancy-dose effect of age at expanded disability status scale 6 (para 0: 43.0 ± 13.2 years, para 1–3: 51.7 ± 11.3 years, para ≥4: 53.5 ± 4.9 years) (P = 0.013). Age at menopause was associated with age at expanded disability status scale 6 (R2 = 0.229, P < 0.003). Premature/early menopause or nulliparity was associated with earlier onset of progressive multiple sclerosis with a ‘dose effect’ of pregnancies on delaying progressive multiple sclerosis and severe disability. Although causality remains uncertain, our results suggest a beneficial impact of oestrogen in delaying progressive multiple sclerosis. If confirmed in prospective studies, our findings have implications for counselling women with multiple sclerosis about pregnancy, surgical menopause and menopausal hormone therapy.