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Families Leaving MN After Research Shows Higher MS Rates

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- If you live in Minnesota, you likely know someone with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Per capita, the state has the highest number of MS cases in the country. Why? Our environment could help to explain the mystery.

It's been enough to move some families out of state.

Tiffany Bierbaum recalls what first drew her to her husband, Brian.

"Brian was always the adventure," Tiffany said.

It's that spirit that has helped to keep the Bierbaum's marriage strong for a dozen years; through adventures of travel, trying new things and building a family of their own.

Their latest journey was not a part of the plan.  Doctors diagnosed Brian with multiple sclerosis last summer, which came one month before he lost his father to complications from the same disease.

"Hearing his mom tell stories, your dad was just like you. He loved to bike and canoe. He was so active and then MS gradually chips away at some of those things," Tiffany said.

While his dad spent 25 years in a wheelchair, it doesn't mean Brian will share the same fate. MS attacks the nervous system and affects everyone differently. But already, there have been days of unbearable fatigue, numbness and muscle weakness. It's planning for the future that perhaps causes the most pain for this young family.

"We try not to burden them with the future too much of how this is going to go," Tiffany said.

After years of believing MS wasn't passed down from one generation to the next, researchers now think there is a link and where we live plays a role.

MS is far more common farther from the equator. Minnesota sits above what's known as the 37th parallel where rates of MS are nearly twice as high as people who live to the south. But, research shows people who are born in a high-risk place and move to a lower risk area before puberty, have a greater chance of keeping the chronic disease away. MS is also twice as common in women as men.

It's why the house the Bierbaum's once dreamed of raising their three girls in is on the market.

"For our family it was enough to make the move," Brian said.

They'll start over in Monterey, California, closer to the equator, very soon.  With the hope it keeps their daughters from the diagnosis.

Dr. Claudia Lucchinetti chairs the neurology department at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

"Low Vitamin D tends to be associated with a great risk of MS," Lucchinetti said.

She recommends people keep Vitamin D levels over 100 to offer some protection from MS. Smoking and obesity also increase the risk.  But because there's no exact cause, she admits prevention is nearly impossible.

"I think ultimately people need to consider where can they get the best place for them to get good care to have support, their family, try to manage the stress in their life," Dr. Lucchinetti said.

In her quest to find better treatments, Dr. Lucchinetti created the world's largest tissue bank of MS lesions by analyzing brain biopsies.

Her research has led to a more personalized approach to treatment.

"The greatest unmet need in MS remains our limited ability to really target that slow gradual progression," Dr. Lucchinetti said.

Where there was once just a couple of drugs to treat symptoms, 15 now exist. Still, there is no cure.

"I hope through our research, through caring for our patients, through listening to them, addressing their needs we can make a difference and that's what we try to do," Dr. Lucchinetti said.

The Bierbaum's remain hopeful a real difference comes soon, as a family faces a new reality 2,000 thousand miles from home.

"It will be sad to leave the house where our children were babies," Tiffany said.

Studies show most people with MS experience a relatively normal life span. However, it's about seven years shorter than those without the disease.

You can learn more about treatments and ways to support those living with MS here.

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