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Multiple sclerosis hits women more than men

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Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease that can produce mild to severe symptoms. Dr. David Dawson, a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, spoke with CNN about the condition.

CNN: What is multiple sclerosis or MS?

Dawson: MS is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system is making an error and is attacking your nervous system. It starts off as attacks of illness, typically with a relapse, which starts off in a few days, lasts for a few weeks and goes away again.

CNN: How prevalent is it in the United States?

Dawson: It is the leading cause of neurological disability in young adults in this country. Most of the time it starts in your 20s and 30s. Women are a bit more likely than men to have the condition. The ratio is something like three to two women over men, and it tends to run in families.

CNN: Do you know what causes MS?

Dawson: I don't think anybody knows that. We're making a lot of progress in controlling the disease without actually knowing what the cause is. It's clear that there is a genetic component. It runs in families. It is much more likely to occur in someone who is from a European background -- English, Irish, German, Italian -- than it is in someone who is from the Far East or parts of Africa where no one ever gets MS.

CNN: What are the signs and symptoms?

Dawson: Typically, at the start, it shows up as some neurological loss of control. It could be vision. It could be clumsy walking. It could be weakness in one arm. It could be numbness somewhere. Often at the beginning it is quite mild and the patient may not get diagnosed for a year or two after the first symptom because the symptoms go away, they are kind of written off. As time goes by, the attacks or relapses as they are called become more obvious, more definite and it's clear that there is something wrong.

CNN: How is it diagnosed?

Dawson: The diagnosis is greatly assisted by MRI scanning. It's a way of assessing the disease at a very early stage of illness. Areas of inflammation in your brain and spinal cord show up as little white spots. They are very easy to see. What's needed is for the scan to be done at an early stage so that the disease can be diagnosed and the proper treatment started.

CNN: Can you control the disease with medication?

Dawson: There are a number of symptomatic treatments for stiffness, pain, tingling and depression. They don't influence the course of the disease, but they are important in relieving the symptoms. Then there are things called DMAs or disease-modifying agents. These are things you take on a regular basis that are meant to control the illness, stop it from progressing. Patients who are on those medications do quite a lot better than those who are not taking them.

CNN: Can diet and exercise help control MS?

Dawson: Diet and exercise are very important for people who are faced with a neurological disability. The people who exercise, don't gain weight and don't smoke, do much, much better.

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