I was born and raised in the Netherlands, famous for cycling. When I still lived there I cycled every day; to school or university, to meet my friends at the pub, everywhere. Whether it was sunny, raining (most of the time) or snowing. Although the cycling infrastructure in Australia is nowhere near as good (yet) as in the Netherlands, I still insist on cycling as my favourite form of transport, and it keeps me fit!
MS is relatively common, almost everyone knows someone with MS. I also know several people with MS and that it can be devastating to receive the diagnosis. When I started working in MS research about 5 years ago, I felt that I could contribute to improving the lives of people with MS by using my research skills. I find that MS researchers here and overseas are often very passionate and that it is a nice community to be a part of. We share a common goal and that is to contribute to the knowledge and practice that will ultimately help prevent or delay any negative consequences of MS.
I am passionate about the ways people with MS can take control to improve their symptoms and health. There is now increasing focus on strategies such as a mental health treatment and healthy lifestyle. This includes avoiding or improving contributors to MS symptoms and poor overall health, such as smoking, depressive symptoms and obesity; and promoting helpful strategies such as exercise. I am very pleased to see an increase in quality research that provides evidence for management strategies such as exercise interventions in the last decade. While there is still a lot of work to do in this domain, and to bring research findings into practice, we are making a lot of progress. There are now large international initiatives such as MS Brain Health, which provide holistic recommendations on diagnosis and treatment strategies including medications and a ‘brain-healthy’ lifestyle. This is a paradigm shift in the management of MS that will hopefully improve the lives of people with MS around the world.
I became aware of the impact of tobacco smoking on the risk of developing MS and MS progression not long after I started working in this area. What surprised me, was that while the evidence of harmful impact of smoking on MS was quite strong, there are no guidelines or interventions to help people with MS quit smoking. When I dug a little deeper I actually found very few clues as to whether people with MS know the harms of smoking on their MS symptoms and progression, whether healthcare professionals address the issue in their clinics, and what the best way to do that might be. Our project aims to address these questions by interviewing people with MS, MS nurses and neurologists. We aim to understand whether the smoking cessation tools and strategies that are already available for the general public are helpful for people with MS, and how we could potentially change them to be more helpful. Ultimately our aim is to help as many people with MS quit smoking as possible, which is likely to improve their health and slow down MS progression.
Smoking is a key risk factor for disability worsening and MS progression, but also for other health conditions such as heart disease. If we are able to provide tools for people with MS and clinicians that will increase successful quitting attempts, this will improve health outcomes for the estimated 10-20% of people with MS who smoke tobacco.
I like working with my colleagues in Melbourne, but also interstate and overseas on new ideas and research projects. Especially conferences where we get to learn about the latest research findings and create new collaborations are lots of fun. The funding landscape is always challenging, and we are spending a lot of time applying for the funds needed to carry out our work. Which is why I’m grateful to MS Research Australia for funding this very important project!
Updated: 03 February, 2020