How Multiple Sclerosis Affects Life Expectancy

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

In This Article

Man receiving MRI to diagnose multiple sclerosis
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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease, but it's not a fatal one. Although there's research to suggest that some with the condition may have a slightly shorter lifespan than the general population, most people with MS die from conditions such as heart disease, cancer, or stroke—the same as otherwise healthy people.

What's more, the life expectancy for those with MS has increased over time, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), thanks to treatment breakthroughs and improvements in MS treatments, better healthcare, and lifestyle changes.

The last of these is especially important because it refers to self-care strategies that anyone with multiple sclerosis can implement to improve not only their longevity but quality of life.

A frequently stated statistic regarding multiple sclerosis is that those with the disease have an average lifespan that's six to seven years shorter than that of the general population.

Life Expectancy and Multiple Sclerosis

This number likely is based on research comparing the average lifespan of people with MS to that of people who don't have the disease.

For example, a 2014 study found that among 30,000 people with MS and 89,000 people without MS, those with the disease lived about six fewer years than those who were otherwise healthy.

Specifically, the subjects with MS lived to a median age of 76, while those without MS lived to a median age of 83—a difference of seven years. 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 the disease died after age 76.

It's important to note that there are limitations to this study. For one, the authors didn't account for the type or severity of disease in the MS group. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA), "relapsing MS is thought to have a better prognosis than progressive forms of the disease." Nor did the researchers consider other medical conditions that may have influenced lifespan in either group.

Factors That May Affect Longevity in MS

Furthermore, the authors didn't look at whether the MS patients were receiving treatment for their disease. This is important because some research suggests that people with MS who take disease-modifying medications have a longer life expectancy than those who don't. More studies need to be done to confirm this possibility.

Aside from whether or not a person is being treated, other factors may play a role in longevity with multiple sclerosis, according to the MSAA.

Life expectancy in MS may be shorter for those who:

Causes of Death in MS

It's virtually unheard of for multiple sclerosis to become so disabling that it's the primary reason a person dies. Most people with MS ultimately succumb to the same causes of death as the general population.

However, having multiple sclerosis can increase the risk of certain diseases and conditions that ultimately may cause death. Among the most common comorbidities reported in a 2018 study looking at 5 million people with MS were:

It also should be noted that multiple sclerosis may increase the risk of having suicidal thoughts—particularly among people with MS who also have depression, are socially isolated, or abuse alcohol, according to a 2017 study published in Multiple Sclerosis.

And although the study did not establish that those who thought about ending their own lives went on to do so, the researchers did point out that "suicide in MS is approximately twice that of the general population, with younger males in the first few years following diagnosis most at risk."

Perspective and Proactive Steps to Take

If you've recently learned you or a loved one has multiple sclerosis, you may be afraid the diagnosis is a death threat. You also may feel you've lost all control of your own health and quality of life. That's understandable, but it can't be stressed enough that for virtually everyone with MS, nothing could be further from the truth, for at least two reasons.

  • Advances in treatment, especially disease-modifying medications, have significantly increased the lifespan of people with MS, especially when started as early as possible.
  • Many of the conditions that can develop in relation to MS are preventable by following the same guidelines for health and well-being that everyone would benefit from.

Doing what you can to live your best (and longest) live with MS, therefore, 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).

A Word From Verywell

In other words, you may have more power over the progression of your disease as well as your overall health than you think. To harness that control, follow your doctor's guidance, be compliant with your medication and live the healthiest life you can. Also consider working with a therapist to help manage the psychological impact of the disease.

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