Women are twice as likely to develop MS as men, though women tend to have less severe cases than men, according to the study.
About three-quarters of the women in the study had children. The researchers measured the time it took for women to reach level 6 on the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS), a rating system used by doctors to describe symptoms, with level 1 being the least severe and 10 being death due to MS. Level 6 is defined as needing a cane, crutch or brace to walk.
Women who did not have children took an average of 13 to 15 years to progress to EDSS 6, while women who had children took an average of 22 to 23 years to reach that stage, the researchers found.
"Having one or more children does seem to be beneficial," said Patricia O'Looney, director of biomedical research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "But we don't know enough about the patient demographics to really draw some major conclusions."
Among the unknowns are the treatments the women in the study were getting for MS or if perhaps the women who decided to have children were feeling better and having fewer symptoms.
Though much remains to be learned about the role of pregnancy in MS, a possible reason why it may help slow the progression of the disease is that during pregnancy, the immune system is "downregulated," in part to prevent the mother's body from rejecting the fetus, O'Looney explained. Suppressing the immune system may also help to control MS, O'Looney noted.
Treatments for MS, such as interferon beta-1a and -1b, work by suppressing the immune system.
A second possibility for why childbirth might help delay the progression of MS is that during pregnancy, estrogen levels rise. Previous research has suggested estrogen may help protect from MS by stimulating the c
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