Life with MS as you get older
Of the 2.8 million people living with MS across the world, about 1 in every 10 is at least 65 years old. Most of these older people with MS have lived with MS for 20 years or more.
As we get older our bodies change, which can bring new challenges for living with MS. MS symptoms tend to progress over the years and we become more likely to develop additional health conditions.
The good news is that getting older can bring the experience and wisdom to better manage MS.
In a study, many older adults with MS said they had gained confidence in managing their condition and had a better quality of life now than previously. In another study, Canadians with MS in their 80s reported less fatigue and stress than those in their 60s.
On this page you can find information about how people with MS can maximise their physical and cognitive abilities, manage MS well, and get the most out of life as they get older.
‘The most important thing of all is that, regardless of MS, we can enjoy our lives, with dignity, with quality, and being as happy as we can be.’
Luis from Spain, Diagnosed in 1997
Find out more about living well with MS as you age below. The content below has been adapted from MSIF’s guide ‘Living well with MS as you grow older’. Download the full resource here.
Managing your health as you get older
Our body and brain health changes over time. Some of these changes may overlap with MS symptoms. It also becomes increasingly likely that you’ll develop additional health conditions, sometimes called ‘co-morbidities’. You can learn more about how age, MS and other health conditions can affect your health here.
To live well with MS as you get older, it’s important to stay on top of your overall health and wellbeing. Here are four simple steps that people with MS can take to manage their health as they age;
- being alert to new symptoms, having screening tests,
- having screening tests,
- following general health advice,
- keeping physically active.
Take a look at these tips and more for looking after your health and wellbeing in the graphic below.
Self-management is a set of approaches to manage (and improve) physical health, mental health and overall wellbeing. It is a valuable skill that can improve quality of life, help people affected by MS to cope with symptoms and improve confidence and positivity about managing MS throughout ageing. It is a skill that can help people feel more in control of their lives and futures. Many people get better at self-management as they get older.
The ingredients of successful self-management can be broken down into six skills; problem solving, decision making, using resources, communicating with healthcare professionals, taking action and self-tailoring.
Many people with MS feel they’ve become more able to manage their condition and symptoms as they’ve got older. In studies of living well with MS at older ages, some people explained that it took them almost 10 years to understand their MS. Once confident in how to predict and manage their MS symptoms, they were able to cope better and focus on the parts of their lives that were important to them.
Self-management is a continual learning process. To live well with MS as you get older, you’ll need to find ways to manage varying symptoms and challenges. By adapting your routines, you can reduce the impact of your MS and do the everyday things that matter to you.
Independence and identity
As we get older we may become more dependent on support from others. Loosing independence is a common concern for people with MS as they get older, this can affect one’s sense of independence and self. However, accepting help often means you can get more from life, not less.
There are many ways to protect your independence and boost your self-esteem, whilst ensuring you get the support you need as you grow older with MS.
This may include things such as planning ahead, adapting your home, using assistive devices and considering your options for local support. Find these tips and more in the graphic below.
‘We will all get old, but it may be more of a challenge for those of us living with MS. Don’t be too hard on yourself and accept your limitations. Seek out support to help with activities that you can no longer do, or modify the activity. Every day, my husband and I walk and roll around the block with our dog, we have done so for the past two years.’
Marie from Canada, Diagnosed in 1966
MS and growing older can both affect your brain health. Many people – both with and without MS – experience some changes in their cognitive abilities as they get older, such as taking longer to process information or being less able to focus.
The effects of MS and age on cognition differ from person to person. MS can begin to affect cognitive function quite early in the disease process. However, some studies suggest that cognitive problems caused by MS worsen no quicker than would normally occur with age.
In general, people with MS experience a fairly slow decline in cognitive function as they get older. This speed of decline is similar to that seen in people without MS. This table summarises some of the common effects of both age and MS on cognition.
Having a well-stimulated brain might help to slow or lessen the impact of age and MS on your brain. Find further information on looking after cognitive health in older age here.
Living with MS can sometimes make you feel down, emotional or irritable. It can also affect your self-esteem. As we learnt in the last section, MS can also affect your brain health, which can have an emotional impact.
When issues such as feeling down or anxious go on for a long time or start to affect your everyday life, they are classed as a mental health condition. Mental health conditions are common in people with MS. For example, about half of all people with MS will get depression in their lifetime. This is a higher rate than seen in the general population.
When living with a long-term condition such as MS, good mental health can make all the difference to your quality of life. Conversely, poor mental health can make it harder to live with the condition and prevent you from living your life fully. Some may feel that there is a stigma attached to talking about mental health. However, it is important that people feel supported and able to discuss and care for their mental health as they get older. There are many ways to take care of your mental health including, getting regular mental health checks, practicing relaxation and boosting your self-management skills. Read more about these tips and others in the graphic below.
Secrets to living well with MS at older ages
What general approaches help people to live well with MS as they age? Based on a survey in Canada, connecting with others, attitude, lifestyle choices and healthcare are all important.
Encouragingly, most themes people found helpful are things we have the power to change. These include social connections, outlook on life, lifestyle choices and healthcare. We give more detail in the graphic below.
‘Living well with MS as your grow older’ resource
You can learn more about positive steps you can take to protect your health, wellbeing and independence as you get older in our guide ‘Living well as you grow older with MS’. The guide is available in English, Spanish and Arabic.
If you are an MS organisation interested in translating any of the above information, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org