What Is the Life Expectancy of Someone With Cerebral Palsy?

There are no hard-and-fast rules

People living with cerebral palsy can enjoy many activities

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Cerebral palsy is associated with a risk of early death, but most people who have been diagnosed with this condition have a normal or nearly normal life expectancy. Certain aspects of the condition can increase the likelihood of life-threatening complications.

Children and adults who have cerebral palsy experience physical and/or cognitive impairment and possibly seizures due to abnormalities of brain development. The condition is usually congenital (present at birth), and it varies in the severity of the effects—depending on the extent of the abnormality of brain development.

Cerebral palsy can sometimes be apparent before a baby’s birth (with prenatal ultrasound), or the effects can be noticeable within the first few days of life. Rarely, the effects of mild cases of cerebral palsy might not be evident until a child is several years old.

Cerebral palsy is not degenerative—the effect on the brain does not worsen over time. However, there is no cure for the condition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 345 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It is the most common cause of physical disability in childhood.

Many people who have cerebral palsy have close to a normal life expectancy. However, cerebral palsy can shorten life expectancy, especially for people who have severe physical or cognitive limitations.

What Affects Life Expectancy for Cerebral Palsy?

Many things affect life expectancy for cerebral palsy. The most common causes of death among people with cerebral palsy are pneumonia, aspiration, seizures, accidents, and infections. Some features of the condition can affect the likelihood of these outcomes, as well as their severity.

Mobility

Mobility is a person’s ability to control their physical movements and to get around. Impaired mobility is associated with a risk of falls and other injuries. Mobility problems in cerebral palsy include muscle weakness, balance problems, coordination difficulties, spasms, stiffness, and muscle atrophy.

A person with cerebral palsy can be treated and have a good recovery after an injury, but some injuries can lead to life-threatening complications. Head trauma, fractures of the spine, and severe abdominal injuries may necessitate surgical intervention and can lead to permanent consequences. Surgery and recovery can be risky for people who have cerebral palsy.

Impaired mobility is also associated with an increased risk of pressure ulcers (bedsores), infections, and contracted, stiff muscles.

Cognitive Ability

Some people with cerebral palsy have completely normal cognitive ability, but impaired cognitive ability with cerebral palsy is not uncommon. More severe cognitive impairment is associated with excess mortality in cerebral palsy.

Children and adults with substantial cognitive deficits are highly dependent on others and often cannot independently manage to avoid risks, such as the risk of injury or illness.

Cognitive impairment interferes with communication, making it difficult for people to express physical or emotional needs or distress. Problems can progress and may become life-threatening when they aren't identified and treated in a timely manner.

Vision Problems

Varying degrees of visual defects can be associated with cerebral palsy. Some types of vision defects can be corrected with lenses or interventional procedures and may not have a substantial impact on survival. However, severe vision problems can affect safety, especially if someone has motor and/or cognitive limitations.

Eating and Swallowing Difficulties

Swallowing has a major impact on life expectancy in cerebral palsy. Difficulty swallowing can lead to life-threatening choking episodes and aspiration (which can cause aspiration pneumonia).

Additionally, difficulty eating can cause malnutrition, which can have an impact on survival as well. In fact, the need for a feeding tube is associated with more than double the risk of death in cerebral palsy.

Musculoskeletal Disabilities

While cerebral palsy is not degenerative, the effects on a child’s body can progress as a child grows in size. Bone malformations, including malformations of the spine, can develop due to impaired motor control. Severe bone deformities with cerebral palsy are associated with a worse prognosis.

Certain musculoskeletal problems, such as deformities that develop in the lower spine, can affect bladder control—potentially leading to recurrent urinary tract infections.

Respiratory Impairment

Breathing difficulties can result from spine and nerve problems, especially problems that affect the upper spine. Respiratory impairment can make it difficult to breathe and cough adequately, increasing the risk of pneumonia.

Additionally, breathing problems can be especially dangerous for people who have substantial cognitive impairment and cannot adequately express that they are experiencing respiratory distress or ask for help.

Seizures

Seizures can affect life expectancy in cerebral palsy, but this is not always the case. Even if you have seizures and cerebral palsy, you can have a normal lifespan.

Medications can be used to manage and prevent seizures. However, there is an increased risk of death due to status epilepticus, a type of prolonged and dangerous seizure that will not stop until it is treated with the administration of emergency anti-seizure medications.

In general, severe epilepsy characterized by frequent seizures that are not easily controlled with medication is more likely to lead to status epilepticus than well-controlled epilepsy with infrequent seizures. Additionally, there is a risk of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), a rare complication of epilepsy.

If you or your child has cerebral palsy and are taking anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), be sure to take them as directed to avoid breakthrough seizures (from skipping doses) or toxicity (from taking too much).

How Would a Doctor Predict Approximate Life Expectancy?

Survival is associated with disability score in cerebral palsy. However, the association is not considered a reliable measure that doctors can use to predict a person’s life expectancy. Many of the symptoms and complications of cerebral palsy can be managed, prevented, and treated.

For example:

  • If you or your child has severe mobility limitations, frequent turning and changing positions can prevent pressure ulcers.
  • Balance problems can lead to falls, but avoiding stairs or using a walker or wheelchair can help prevent them.
  • If you have swallowing difficulties, you can avoid aspiration by working with a therapist to practice swallowing and by sticking to foods with a texture that is safer to swallow.

If you or your child has cerebral palsy, your doctor would discuss signs of health problems that you should look out for. Getting timely care can help alleviate potential harmful health issues.

Warning signs you should look out for include:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Fever
  • Excessive sleeping or severe tiredness
  • Injuries
  • Pain, swelling, bruises
  • Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing
  • Increasing frequency or severity of seizures

If you notice any of these issues, they can be treated to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications of cerebral palsy.

A Word From Verywell

Living with cerebral palsy can be challenging. The effects of this condition require lifestyle adjustments, family support, and ongoing medical care.

People living with mild forms of cerebral palsy can have a normal life expectancy with some attention to health and safety accommodations. And even people who have severe forms of cerebral palsy can have a normal or near-normal life expectancy when medical issues are closely monitored and complications are managed promptly.

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Article Sources
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