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Multiple Sclerosis in Blacks

By on May 8, 2013

The late comedian Richard Pryor and Montell Williams might be the two most well known cases of black males who ever lived with Multiple Sclerosis. The degenerative condition was thought to afflict more whites but now that seems to be no more.

Researchers found black women were more likely than white women to be diagnosed with MS, in which the protective coating around nerve fibers breaks down, slowing signals traveling between the brain and body. Among men, there was no difference. For years doctors have assumed black people are less likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS) than whites, but a new study suggests the opposite may be true.

“The thing I was taught in medical school is that this is a disease primarily of white people,” said Dr. Annette Langer-Gould, who led the new study at Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Los Angeles. But most of that older data came from potentially unrepresentative research, she said, such as a study of veterans from the 1950s that found white men were twice as likely to get MS as black men. What’s more, she pointed out, most MS clinics are in predominantly white areas – skewing how people perceive the disease.

Whether you have a diagnosis or are worried about symptoms, know that MS doesn’t have to control your life. You can work with your doctor to treat and manage your symptoms so you can stay healthy and continue to live the life you want.

Early Symptoms of MS

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Thinking problems
  • Clumsiness or a lack of coordination
  • Loss of balance
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Weakness in an arm or leg.

No two people have exactly the same symptoms of MS.

The new report, Langer-Gould said, is the first to look at a group of patients representative of a large population. She and her colleagues analyzed three years’ worth of medical records for the 3.5 million patients in the Kaiser Permanente health system. During that time, 496 were diagnosed with MS. The researchers found that over an average year, 10 out of every 100,000 blacks developed the disease, compared to 7 white patients, 3 Hispanics and just over 1 Asian per 100,000.

More than two-thirds of all MS diagnoses were in women, and that gender gap was particularly strong among blacks, Langer-Gould and her colleagues reported. She said it’s still not clear why the frequency of the disease varies by race, although her team is doing a follow-up study to try to answer that question.



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