5 Ways to Live Stronger With Multiple Sclerosis

In the 1970s, multiple sclerosis (MS) was a very different disease than it is today. Back then, the average time from diagnosis to death was seven years. Today, that figure stands at around 30 years thanks in large part to the introduction of disease-modifying drugs in 1993. 

What this means is that from the average age of diagnosis to the average age of death, the life expectancy of people living with MS today is around 76 years compared 83 years for those in the general population.

Does this mean you are destined to lose those seven years or that you can forget about shooting for your 80s or even 90s? 

Not at all. The simple truth is that you control many of the factors that are linked to a healthier and longer lifespan. So rather than surrender to the law of averages, you can exceed averages by paying closer attention to not only your health (including your heart, lungs, and brain), but your emotional well-being as well.  

Here are five simple fixes that can help:


Think Positive About Aging

A doctor meets with a patient.
Attitude is as important to managing MS as medical care. Dan Dalton/Getty Images

Start by forgetting the statistics. There is just as much research out there showing that the way we view aging can influence our health and not only for better but for the worse.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that older adults who held positive "age stereotypes" (for example, that age brings wisdom and self-realization rather than sickness and disability) had a higher level of functioning and were more able to recover from physical setbacks.

The first thing to do is to avoid getting stuck on the concept that MS is a "progressive" disease. In the end, illness is not an inevitability if you take a more progressive stance to your health moving forward.


Eat the Rainbow

multiiple sclerosis diet
Choosing colorful foods is a simple trick for eating healthy with MS. Troels Graugaard/Getty Images

Eating healthy is the first and perhaps most important way to take charge of your health if you are living with MS.

An easy way to do this is to "eat the rainbow." This means consuming as many colors of fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Think berries with oatmeal for breakfast, a big green salad with grilled chicken at lunch, and roasted root vegetables with fish for dinner.

Focus on food with anti-inflammatory properties. From a dietary standpoint, this means: 

  • Three to four servings of fruit daily and four to five servings of vegetables daily
  • Choosing beans, legumes and whole grains to reduce blood sugar spikes
  • Choosing Omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats over saturated and (heaven forbid) trans fats
  • Reducing fats from animal fat
  • Cutting back sugar and refined flour which can also trigger blood sugar spike

Get Up and Start Moving

Tai Chi is ideal for improving balance and muscle coordination.
Tai Chi is ideal for improving balance and muscle coordination. Tim Platt/Getty Images

Exercise is central any healthy aging plan. You cannot assume that diet alone will take care of everything, especially insofar as MS is concerned.

This doesn't mean taking up a hardcore fitness routine. Instead, figure out ways to exercise and improve cardiovascular health without overheating and triggering the effects of MS-related heat intolerance.

Focus on building your balance and flexibility, such as with yoga, tai chi, or rubber band resistance training. Increase your cardio fitness by cycling or walking (rather than running a marathon) or swimming (rather than hitting a Zumba class).

In other words, make appropriate choices for your age and fitness level. Speak with your doctor before starting any exercise program and consider working with a trained fitness program to better ensure you meet your program goals.


Keep Your Brain Sharp

Smiling women at computer in adult education classroom
Keeping mentally active may help may preserve or improve cognitive function. Caiaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images

While the brain is not a muscle, it behaves like one. In fact, research suggests that "training" your brain like a muscle can significantly improve certain cognitive functions like working memory, math skills, or verbal acuity.

People with MS may be doubly at risk of cognitive loss given that both the disease and aging can contribute to a decline. By taking a proactive stance and keeping your mind "fit," you can overcome many of these challenges and even improve certain functions.

There is no one, single way to do this. It's actually more about choice. Do you watch TV and let your brain become a couch potato, or do pick up a book and read? Do you let your brain become lazy by reaching for a calendar, or do you challenge yourself by trying a little mental arithmetic? 

Give your brain a daily workout to preserve memory and sharpness. Try doing puzzles, playing memory games, or enrolling in an adult education class for no other purpose than for knowledge and a sense of personal fulfillment.

The more you exercise your brain, the stronger it will become.


Get Plenty of Rest and Relaxation

meditation and multiple sclerosis
Managing stress may help reduce the risk of MS relapse. RunPhoto/Getty Images

Unregulated stress is unhealthy for anyone. It drains you of energy, interrupts your sleep, and takes a serious toll on your general health and well-being. For people living with MS, stress can be especially debilitating as it can also trigger MS relapses. This not only leads to a worsening of symptoms, it is associated with the long-term progression of the disease.

If you live a stressful lifestyle, you need to take an active part in finding ways to mitigate that stress. It may mean learning meditation (even simple, daily practices such as pranayama breathing) or find other relaxation techniques that you can work into a daily routine.

You can further enhance this practice by creating strong sleep habitsFatigue is a huge problem in people with MS, a situation which can be complicated by things like nocturia (the need to urinate at night) and middle-of-the-night muscle spasms.

Insomnia and other sleep problems are not things you should just live with. Sleep deprivation, stress, and MS are all interrelated. To ensure better, long-term health, you need to actively address any sleeping problems may you have with your doctor.

Do not go it alone or rely on over-the-counter sleeping pills. Get help today.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Goodin, D.; Redder, A.; Cutter, G. et al. "Survival in MS: A randomized cohort study 21 years after the start of the pivotal IFNβ-1b trial ." Neurology. 2012; 78(17):1315-22.
  • Marrie, R.; Elliott, L.; Marriott, J. et al. "Effect of comorbidity on mortality in multiple sclerosis." Neurology. 2015: 85(3): 240-247.