Ageing with MS
Although multiple sclerosis (MS) is most commonly diagnosed in people aged in their twenties or thirties, the increasing life expectancy of the general population and wider availability of MS treatment means that the number of older people living with MS is rising. In fact, research suggests that more than half of people with MS are now aged 50 years or older!
For those of you at the start of your MS journey, this article has the information needed to help you prepare for how MS might change as you age, shining a light on the positive side of ageing and suggesting small steps that will help keep your brain as healthy as possible as you grow older.
Ageing with MS is a challenge
Naturally, as human beings, we all experience an abundance of changes as we age. A shifting appearance, reduced strength and fitness, difficulties with movement, memory problems, and gradual worsening of eyesight and hearing are just some of the physical and mental changes we may have to confront.
Age-related conditions like arthritis, high blood pressure, osteoporosis (causing weak and brittle bones), and heart problems are also more likely to arise as we get older.
Even without MS, these changes can be difficult to adjust to. But with MS in the mix, you may also question how your MS will develop over the years and how this too can be impacted by the ageing process.
The majority of older adults with MS live with a progressive type of the condition which has either progressed gradually since diagnosis (primary progressive MS) or developed from relapsing remitting MS (secondary progressive MS).
As a result, people living with MS are having to cope with the burden of age-related changes on top of slowly worsening MS symptoms over time. This added challenge only amplifies the impact of existing MS symptoms, making them harder to manage as you grow older. It can also be tricky to tell symptoms of ageing apart from MS symptoms. It’s therefore important that you talk to your doctor about any changes in your symptoms to make sure that potential age-related conditions are not missed, so they can be managed as needed.
Impact of age on the immune system
Given that MS is an autoimmune disease with an ageing population, the impact of ageing on the immune system is an important area of study for scientists trying to understand more about MS and how it can be treated. Research has shown that people living with MS encounter age-related immune changes with an immune system that experiences premature ageing.
An autoimmune disease is a disease where, for unknown reasons, the body attacks its own tissues as if they were foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses.
It is worth noting that ageing of the immune system can increase the risk of infections, a known trigger that can worsen MS symptoms. It is therefore a good idea to be aware of the rising risk of contracting infections as you age and take steps to avoid this where possible.
Simple actions such as washing your hands regularly and talking to your doctor to make sure you’re up to date on all the relevant vaccinations can help to reduce your risk and keep you well.
Ageing comes with its perks
While ageing is often spoken about in a negative light, it is also accompanied by more wisdom and life experience. And this is especially true for those living with MS, having had time to learn about their condition over the years and figure out the best ways of coping with their MS that work for them.
Key benefits of ageing with MS include:
- Better self-management of symptoms
- Better understanding of your own MS – when to rest or ask for help
- Better understanding of MS by family and friends
- People tend to have more sympathy and patience for older people with disabilities
What can I do to help?
It’s never too early to start building good habits that can help to make the natural process of ageing as smooth as possible. Here, we’ve put together a list of steps you can take to improve your lifestyle and limit the impact of ageing on your health.
If the suggestions below are too overwhelming, you don’t have to try all of them at once. Pick one you feel comfortable with and gradually integrate more of these healthy habits into your everyday life over time.
- MS aside, eating a healthy and balanced diet is important for everyone to maintain good health and keep energised. A diet low in saturated fat, with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and oily fish is a good place to start. We understand that fatty, sugary, and salty foods are hard to avoid, but should be limited where you can. And don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water!
For more dietary information and guidance related to MS, visit the MS Trust website.
- Don’t fret! Staying active doesn’t necessarily mean going for a 10 km run every day. But doing some level of exercise each day is important for both your physical and mental health. Start by building activities into your daily routine – the type and level of activity will depend on your age and how your MS impacts your mobility, but could be as simple as doing some gardening, going for a walk, or gentle yoga exercises
For guidance and advice for exercising with MS, visit the MS Trust website.
- Staying in touch with friends and family is vital for your mental health. Maintaining social connections can help to keep your brain healthy and those close to you will always be there to talk through any worries and put them into perspective. If you’re looking to connect with likeminded people, try volunteering in your local community or joining groups to find others who share your interests or hobbies.
Plan for the future
- It’s only natural to worry about the future, but it can help to feel a level of control over what’s to come. Try making plans for any potential situations that are playing on your mind. While it’s possible that they won’t even happen, it can take some of the weight off your shoulders knowing how you’ll deal with these situations if they do arise in the future.
We know that it’s not always easy to think ahead, but it’s important to arm yourself with the information needed to build a future as bright as possible! If you’re concerned about the impact of ageing on your MS or how your MS might change over time, talk to your doctor or MS nurse. They might be able to ease any worries and offer you support to help you on your journey.
- MS Trust – Aging and MS. Available at: https://mstrust.org.uk/news/views-and-comments/ageing-and-ms. Accessed September 2022.
- Dema M et al. Autoimmun Rev. 2021; 20(9): 102893.
- Zuroff L et al. EBioMedicine. 2022; 82: 104179.
- MS Trust – Autoimmunity. Available at: https://mstrust.org.uk/a-z/autoimmunity. Accessed September 2022.
- Ibáñez A O et al. Neurología. 2020; S0213-4853(20)30226-7.
- Medical News Today – Managing multiple sclerosis exacerbations. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/311427. Accessed September 2022.