Ageing and MS

21 April 2020

In a recent blog, leading neurologist Professor Gavin Giovannoni wrote about ageing in MS and predicted that, with the MS population increasing, this could be an important topic in 2020. Simon from the MS Trust’s information team looks at some of the challenges of growing older with MS and the support that’s available.

MS is a lifelong condition and issues associated with growing older will present challenges to people also living with multiple sclerosis. As most people are diagnosed in their twenties and thirties, MS is sometimes described as a young person's condition. The new figures on the number of people with MS in the UK reconfirm that this is not the case, with more than half of people with MS aged 50 or older. 

As well as coping with the continuing, possibly increasing, effects of MS, you are more likely to develop other health issues (or comorbidities) as you grow older. Common age related conditions include arthritis, reduced memory, vision or hearing, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and heart problems. 

Even in the absence of other health conditions, the effects of ageing may match or amplify MS symptoms. It can be difficult when dealing with issues such as weakness, temperature control, fatigue, bladder control and poorer balance to separate what is caused by MS and what is due to age. Not everything is due to MS and there is the risk that treatable conditions are lumped together with long-term conditions and so not adequately managed. 

Social isolation can be a problem in both age and long-term illness. Being unable to maintain friendships and contact with other people can lead to low mood and depression. This can lead to a cycle of isolation as feeling down can make you disinclined to try to make contact. 

Your independence may be affected by physical and cognitive changes and by increasing care needs. This, again, may restrict socialising. 

The effects don't only apply to people with MS. A couple where one partner is a carer will be ageing together and both may be finding their abilities becoming more limited. The care needs may proportionally increase and the carer, who could have their own health issues, needs to look after their own physical and social health. 

Age can bring some advantages. Studies have reported that some people find age helps them manage their MS. On one hand, you have more experience of what MS might do and how you might cope with some of the problems it can present. Equally, people expect someone who is older to be less active or walk with a stick, maybe less cognitively with it. They may better make allowances for these symptoms in older people than they do for people at a younger age.

What can be done to help oneself? 

Watch what you eat and drink 

A good diet is important at any stage of life to maintain health and energy. A good basic diet will be low in saturated fat, with lots of fruit and vegetables, oily fish. Keep fatty, sugary and salty foods to a minimum. And drink plenty of water. 

Stay active 

Doing some degree of activity every day is important for fitness, for general health, and for mood and self-esteem. This needn't be exercise in a gym sense, but building in activities to your daily routine will help. Approaches such as chair yoga or Pilates are gentle but helpful exercises to try.  

Look after your general health 

If it becomes harder to get out, general health issues such as dental checks, sight tests or podiatry can be neglected. If problems are allowed to build up, this can also have an impact on your MS and worsen symptoms. If getting to health services is difficult, look into visiting services that can come to you. 

Stay in touch 

Having contact with other people is good for general wellbeing and for putting your concerns into perspective. This may involve keeping in touch with family and friends who have moved away, or taking part in social groups and meetings. Of course, the group needn't be anything to do with MS or with age. Find something you enjoy and get involved. Volunteering in a local service or charity shop may give you new opportunities to meet people and to help out in your community. If getting out is a problem, Age UK and The Silver Line run befriending services, both over the telephone or visiting befrienders. You may prefer to volunteer as a befriender contacting other people. 

Plan ahead 

Concerns about what might happen in the future are natural, but thinking through what you might do in certain situations can be helpful. Turning concerns into strategies can give you some control and make fears seem less threatening. 

Find out more

Making decisions and preparing for the future is an important element of self-management. Although MS is unpredictable and it's difficult to know how it will affect you in later life, you can begin to develop self-management skills which will help you to anticipate problems and find ways to resolve them. The MS Trust booklet, MS and me looks at setting goals, problem solving and healthy living.

It can be helpful to discuss issues relating to living with multiple sclerosis with other people with first-hand experience. There are a host of support groups, both online and face-to-face, where you can share your own experiences and benefit from those of others. Find out more about MS support groups

Adopting a healthy lifestyle will keep you as healthy as possible and put you in the best position to deal with the challenges that MS brings. We have lots of tips to help you live well with MS