How MS Can Affect Life Expectancy

MS is not considered a fatal disease, but it may influence lifespan

Man receiving MRI to diagnose multiple sclerosis
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Multiple sclerosis is sometimes reported as a cause of death, especially in high profile celebrity cases. The truth is that a person with MS is more likely to die from the same conditions as everyone else (heart disease, cancer, and stroke) than from MS itself.

Still, many people wonder what impact multiple sclerosis will have on their life expectancy, and if there are ways to optimize how long they live.

Multiple Sclerosis and Life Expectancy

While multiple sclerosis is not typically considered a fatal disease, research has found that MS may affect life expectancy to some degree.

A study of more than 30,000 people with MS and 89,000 people without MS found that people with MS may have a somewhat reduced lifespan—about six years less than those without MS. In the study, those with MS lived to a median age of 76 compared to a matched group of people without MS who lived to a median age of 83. Median refers to the middle number, meaning half of the people with MS died before the age of 76 and half of the people with MS died at an age older than 76.

However, there were some limitations and gaps in this study. For one, the authors didn't observe the type or severity of MS in that group. Also, the participants' other medical conditions (and how they influenced lifespan) were not followed throughout the course of the study.

Finally, the authors also didn't look at whether the MS patients were receiving treatment for their disease. Some research suggests that people with MS who take disease-modifying medications have a better life expectancy than those who don't—although, more studies need to be done to confirm this.

Remember too that this study is not meant to estimate at what age you or your loved one will die. There is a whole host of individual factors that play a role in how long someone will live, like slices of a pie, and MS is just one of those slices (albeit a big one, although sometimes not the biggest).

The big picture here is not the number 76 versus 83, but rather the fact that life expectancy is a bit less in the MS population.

Why Having MS Means You Need to Be More Health-Conscious

One interesting study evaluated the impacts of disease-related complications and comorbidities (multiple health conditions) on life expectancy in people with MS. Results showed that people with MS and comorbidities were more likely to die younger than people with just MS. Also, not surprisingly, having diabetes, coronary (heart) artery disease, depression, lung disease and other conditions increased the risk of death in people with and without MS.

With that, as someone with multiple sclerosis, you still need to worry about all the other leading causes of chronic disease and death like heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

In other words, you need to care for your overall health, in addition to your MS health. These means eating well, exercising, coping with stress in positive ways, and seeing your primary care doctor periodically for preventive care measures like vaccinations and screening tests (for example, colonoscopy and mammogram).

To some degree too, your MS may actually contribute to another chronic disease. For example, if multiple sclerosis limits your ability to exercise or even move about much, you may increase your risk of heart disease due to your sedentary lifestyle.

On a positive note, many people with MS enjoy embracing healthy habits—it gives them some control and power over their health.

Advances in MS Treatment

The life expectancy estimate also mostly reflects people that were not on disease-modifying treatment from an early point in their disease. These drugs only became available in the early 1990s, and advances in care for people with MS are steadily closing in on this small gap in life expectancy.

Life expectancy for those with MS continues to improve over time, which is attributable to new technology and treatments, better health care and lifestyle changes. Because so many MS-related complications are preventable and manageable, paying closer attention to an individual's general well-being can prevent these conditions from ever developing in the first place.

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