Many of us are aware that where we live (or at least where we lived in our early life) may have played a role in our developing multiple sclerosis (MS). This likely has to do with sun exposure in childhood and possibly other latitude-related influences.
Researchers have now found a link between where a person with MS lives and their likelihood of developing both vision and mental health issues. However, more than latitude and sun exposure, this location-specific finding is based on socioeconomic factors.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore recently reported on two studies examining the impact of socioeconomic status on MS; the studies show links to increases in retinal nerve fiber damage and vision loss, and to depression and anxiety.
Retinal Nerve Damage and Vision Loss
The first study, published in December 2021 in the journal Brain, found links between socioeconomic disparity and faster retinal neurodegeneration in multiple sclerosis.
Using optical coherence tomography (OCT), researchers scanned the optic nerves of 789 people with MS whose socioeconomic status details were available within 10 years of MS onset. People with lower socioeconomic status showed faster rates of retinal nerve damage and vision loss.
The scientists also found a number of comorbidities of MS associated with living in a neighborhood with lower socioeconomic status, including high blood pressure, obesity, and sleep apnea.
Depression, Anxiety, and Barriers to Mental Health Care
The second study, published on December 4, 2021, in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, linked socioeconomic status and race or ethnicity with mental health factors.
Using the same type of postal code and neighborhood-level socioeconomic status criteria, the report reflects data of 2,095 people with MS around the United States. Those with lower socioeconomic status exhibited higher levels of depression and anxiety.
While those of higher socioeconomic status reported depression and anxiety as well, they also reported improvement after receiving mental health care.
This study, therefore, focuses on the importance of considering the delivery of mental health services in conjunction with MS care, as well as addressing varying attitudes on mental health based on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic status backgrounds.
One example of this was highlighted in the research results, which noted that a higher proportion of Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino participants were more likely to report they would “definitely go” receive mental health care if services were colocated with their MS care.
Investigators in each study urge further study into links between socioeconomic status and health outcomes related to multiple sclerosis.
Both studies were partly funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
How MS Can Affect Our Socioeconomic Status
Many of us living with multiple sclerosis know all too well that the disease — and its direct and indirect impacts on employment and income — can negatively impact our socioeconomic status.
Now we learn that healthcare disparities based on socioeconomic status and employment appear to have a direct correlation with knock-on health issues with MS.
Still, advocating for ourselves can make a difference.
If you feel that you are experiencing mental health issues — which may or may not be associated with MS — make sure to bring them to the attention of your MS medical team.