How Does Multiple Sclerosis Affect Seniors and Aging Adults?

May 29, 2019

Did you know Canada has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis (MS) in the world?

According to the MS Society of Canada, approximately one in every 385 Canadians live with the disease. And while it’s most often diagnosed in people aged 20 to 49, younger children and older adults—seniors—are also diagnosed with MS.

So how does MS affect seniors? For this blog, we talked to the MS Society of Canada.

How many seniors in Canada have MS?

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about 40% of adults diagnosed with MS are between the ages of 50 and 85; and 60% are between the ages of 20 and 49.

Does the risk of developing MS increase with age?

No, the risk of MS does not increase with age. MS is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 49. Research suggests MS is diagnosed in adults over age 50 in approximately 5% of cases. This is also called “late-onset MS.”

How does MS affect seniors?

MS can be diagnosed later in life (also referred to as “late-onset MS”), or an aging person may have been living with MS for several years/decades.

What does late-onset MS look like—and how does it compare to MS in people’s younger years?

Compared to people diagnosed with MS under 50, late-onset MS is typically a progressive course with a higher level of disability for the person affected. There is usually an increased risk of comorbidities (that is, having two chronic conditions or diseases at one time), as well as increased mobility issues.

More studies in aging and MS are required, but late-onset MS has shown to increase the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegeneration; and research suggests that neuronal repair processes are not as effective as younger patients with MS.

What about older people who have been living with relapsing MS for several decades?

People living with relapsing-remitting MS (also known as RRMS) have unpredictable but clearly defined relapses during which new symptoms appear—or existing ones get worse. Following a relapse, full or partial recovery is possible. Most people with RRMS will eventually transition to a phase of the disease called “secondary progressive MS or SPMS.”

During the secondary progressive phase, patients may experience progressive worsening and fewer relapses.

Person in a wheelchair outdoors near grass
One in every 385 Canadians live with MS

Is medication available to treat MS?

There are over a dozen medications available for treating relapsing forms of MS; however, they may not be as effective in older patients versus younger patients.

MS isn’t fatal, but does the risk of dying while having MS increase with age?

There are many comorbidities that can occur in the aging population. Some of these may increase the risk of disability and death; however, it can be difficult to determine whether that risk is due to the MS or the comorbidities (like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, malignancies etc.).

Does having MS increase a senior citizen’s chances of developing other ailments?

Regardless of age, people living with MS have an increased risk of developing other autoimmune conditions, compared to people who do not have a pre-existing autoimmune condition.  

Steroids are used to manage acute MS relapses; and, prolonged use can lead to bone loss, weakness of bones and osteoporosis. Lack of mobility, paired with weakened bones, can increase a senior’s risk for falls and fractures.

How does mental health play a role in MS—particularly where seniors are concerned?

Approximately half of all people diagnosed with MS will experience depression at some point over the course of their disease. Social isolation can be an issue for people living with MS who have mobility issues or a higher level of disability progression. Other diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia may also occur in elderly people with MS, but no more than those living without MS.

Should seniors with MS consider moving into a retirement home or long-term care home?

Not unless they require care that they cannot receive at home. It’s encouraged to remain at home as long as possible, if the required care is available and possible at home.

What supports are available in Ottawa for seniors with MS and/or caregivers?

These are just a few:

  • Support Groups—Various monthly support groups available to both those diagnosed with MS (MS Society) and to caregivers (MS Society and other organizations, such as the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre).
  • MS Society Friendly Visiting Program—Trained volunteers regularly visit people diagnosed with MS who live in long-term care.
  • Meals on Wheels—Available to seniors and people with disabilities at a cost to the client. Offered out of various locations depending on the area of the city the person resides in. A list of service areas is available on their website.
  • Exercise—There are various exercise options available in the Ottawa region. For example, MS Exercise Class at Jack Purcell Community Centre, Better Strength, Better Balance from Ottawa Public Health, etc.

For more information about local supports, please contact the Ottawa Chapter. You can also visit the MS Society of Canada website for general information about MS.  

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