Causes and Risk Factors for MDS

The causes of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) are not yet fully understood. We do know that the disease occurs most often in people in their mid-60s and 70s and beyond. Many of our patients come in and ask, “Why did I get this disease? Is it hereditary? Can my other family members get it?” There is not a hereditary reason for the disease in the majority of MDS patients, and while there are some families with a history of MDS, it is relatively uncommon. Children of parents who have MDS do not typically get the disease because their parents had it.

In addition to age, research has uncovered a few risk factors for MDS:

  • Chemotherapy and radiation treatment received for other cancers or other medical conditions increase a person’s risk of developing MDS. MDS that develops after the use of cancer chemotherapy or radiation is called “secondary MDS.” Also, patients who have had other types of cancer, such as lymphoproliferative diseases (eg., lymphomas or multiple myeloma), are also more at risk, even if they were not treated with chemo or radiation.
  • Exposure to benzene or other petrochemicals has also been shown to increase the risk of MDS. There is also some data that shows men are more at risk for the disease. Some researchers speculate that there may be a correlation between these two risk factors, because men may be more likely to be exposed to these industrial chemicals. While benzene use is now highly regulated, it is not clear which other chemicals may predispose individuals to MDS, although certain occupations have been labeled “at risk” for the development of MDS or leukemia (e.g., painters, coal miners, or embalmers).
  • There are no known food or agricultural products that cause MDS.

What we know for certain, is that the bone marrow loses its ability to produce normal blood cells and replenish the blood supply. At Mount Sinai, we are constantly doing research to understand how and why this occurs.