Lifestyle Research Points the Way to Wellness

This past week’s ACTRIMS-ECTRIMS Joint Meeting brought together nearly 9,000 people — most of them researchers — from across the globe to share results and make connections with others who want to find solutions for multiple sclerosis. In addition to presentations and training courses, the gathering featured an incredible number of posters — more than 1,000 — each one representing research that has the potential to change the lives of people with MS.

Poster sessions give a group of researchers the opportunity to present their work in a condensed format, literally on a 5-foot by 3-foot sheet of poster paper tacked to a board. Each poster outlines the scientists’ methods and outcomes with text and graphics.

Walking through hallways swathed with hundreds and hundreds of studies, I wanted to know: what did the posters have to say about how to live a better life with MS right now? I was particularly curious about diet and exercise, and I felt like Peter Piper picking a peck of posters. Which poster should I pick?

The first poster I chose highlighted a study of people with relapsing-remitting MS who followed a low-fat, plant-based diet for one year. Because there’s emerging interest in whether nutrition and obesity influences MS disease progression, the proposed diet was very low in saturated fat. It focused on starch — lots of potatoes, corn, rice, beans, pasta, oats, fruits and vegetables, and no meat, fish or dairy.

The people who followed the diet reported a significant decrease in MS-related fatigue at the end of the year, and significantly less fatigue than a control group of people with MS who didn’t follow the diet. The Oregon researchers concluded that this approach is worth further investigation.

The next poster I visited linked salt consumption and increased disease activity in MS. The study, a collaboration between the Raúl Carrea Institute for Neurological Research in Buenos Aires and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, suggested that a higher salt intake puts people with MS at greater risk for new lesions and more relapses.

This study jives with earlier research that points to the possibility that dietary salt may stimulate the activity of key immune cells involved in MS attacks.

Finally, I spent time with a poster from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that explored aerobic fitness and hippocampal volume in MS. The hippocampus — a curved structure in the brain shaped like a seahorse — transforms new information into long-term memory.

Novel evidence showed an association between aerobic fitness and hippocampal volume. This work provides a stronger basis for examining aerobic exercise training as an approach for delaying or reversing shrinkage of the hippocampus in MS, which is exciting news for people with MS who struggle with memory loss.

It’s no surprise that research from the world’s largest MS meeting is telling us to eat our vegetables, cut back on the chips and get some exercise. But it’s possible that these lifestyle changes could lead to meaningful long-term effects: less fatigue, decreased disease activity and improved memory — all of which can help people with MS live their best lives.

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Anna Kucera

Anna Kucera is the marketing and public relations director for the National MS Society, Upper Midwest Chapter.