Echoing those findings, a 2015 study published in the journal Neurology found that the median life expectancy for people with MS was 76 years, compared to 83 years for those without MS. However in this particular study, when examining the causes of death, MS wasn’t solely to blame; nearly as many people died of cancer, cardiovascular, or respiratory illnesses as did complications from MS.
I think it’s fair to say that the impact of MS on life expectancy is small but significant. In light of this new research, the National MS Society calls for those with MS to pay attention to their overall health and wellness in order to help reduce the risk of disease complications and other medical conditions.
For the most part, the same guidelines and suggestions about healthy aging and longevity apply for people with MS as do for everybody else. To live a long and healthy life, you have to take care of your heart, your brain, and the rest of your body. When you have MS, you have the additional job of carefully managing your disease. Here are my top 10 ways to live long with MS, and make your later years your best years.
Think Positive About Aging
Firstly, don’t let the above statistics about MS and longevity scare you or cloud your view of the future. There’s just as much research out there showing that the way we view aging can influence our health, for better or 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 helplessness) had a higher level of functioning and were more able to recover from physical setbacks. It’s in your best interest to find the more positive aspects of aging, such as more time on your hands or the opportunity to increase your spirituality, and to generally keep on the sunny side of life. Find things to look forward to as you get older. This is especially important, since it can serve as the counterbalance to the stress of MS symptoms.
Eat the Rainbow
Your body needs a variety of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants from vegetables and other healthy foods in order to function and thrive. Do not neglect your nutrition as you age, or at any point in your journey with MS, as it can help keep your disease in check and prevent other chronic diseases.
Try to “eat the rainbow” of fruits and veggies every day—think berries with oatmeal for breakfast, a big green salad with grilled chicken at lunch, and piece of fish and roasted root vegetables over rice for dinner. Removing anti-inflammatory foods such as sugar, high-fat dairy (especially cheese), and processed foods has been shown to lower the risk of some diseases. In addition, many people with autoimmune diseases such as MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and others anecdotally report fewer symptom exacerbations while following an anti-inflammatory diet.
Exercise is critical in any healthy aging plan. Figure out ways you can exercise and get physical activity without overheating and triggering the effects of MS-related heat intolerance.
Focus on building your balance and flexibility. Your doctor can write you a prescription for physical therapy, which can help you build your muscles, improve balance, and move more efficiently. Ask trainers and instructors to help troubleshoot your mobility issues. A good yoga instructor, for example, should be able to help customize a routine for your body. Yoga for MS has been shown to be very helpful for some individuals.
Keep Your Brain Sharp
Cognitive symptoms are common in both MS and in aging. Although not many medications can boost memory or other cognitive problems, there are steps you can take. (Note: there is a drug used for memory problems in people with Alzheimers disease called Aricept that is being tested in people with MS.)
Specialists such as neuropsychologists, psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists can help with cognitive rehabilitation. You can be proactive by giving your brain a daily workout to preserve memory and sharpness. Try doing puzzles, playing memory games and challenging yourself with new thoughts, ideas, and puzzles. Be engaged and interested in the world and your brain will stay as sharp as possible.
Teach Yourself to Really Relax
Unregulated stress is unhealthy for anyone: It drains you of energy, worsens your sleep, and damages your long-term health. But for people with MS, stress can be particularly debilitating as it can interact with the immune system, trigger MS relapses, and worsen the intensity of symptoms.
Learn and practice relaxation techniques every day and prepare ahead of time for stressful situations by creating a relapse plan.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Your body has enough to cope with already: Don’t make its job harder by being overweight. The extra weight on your body will create additional health conditions. Keep your diet balanced and healthy and be sure to get and stay active.
Boost Your Connections
More and more studies are revealing the connection between strong social support and positive health outcomes. It stands to reason that having emotional outlets and feeling valued and important will lead to better health.
Research also shows that a solid support system may encourage patients to take their medications, keep doctor’s appointments, and stay on top of their self-care and nutrition. It also has been shown to improve your mood and protect your brain from cognitive decline, as well as make life fun and interesting!
Join a few groups, perhaps even a support group for MS, and be sure to socialize with others as often as you can. Talk about your MS with your friends – it sometimes helps you feel better just to have someone listen. If you feel like withdrawing socially, very sad, or like you have lost interest in activities or people that you used to enjoy, you may have depression, a common MS symptom. Seek help for your depression from a doctor and don’t suffer needlessly.
Stay on Top of Your MS
Stay on top of your treatments and doctor’s appointments for MS. Find a doctor with whom you feel comfortable and can build a long-term relationship as you work as partners to keep you as healthy as possible. Be 100-percent compliant with your doctor’s instructions, but do not be afraid to question them, express reluctance, and start a conversation if something suggested to you doesn’t feel right.
Be sure that you are getting regular check-ups to monitor your MS, and once you and your doctor decide on a medication or treatment plan, follow it. A 2012 report in the journal Neurology showed that people with MS who take disease-modifying medications have a better life expectancy than those who don’t.
Ask for help when you need it. Professional help is available for you if you have physical disability or are feeling depressed. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and counselors can all help you overcome some of the symptoms of MS. You can also seek out support groups and other resources for help. Take an active role in improving your health by asking for help when you need it.
Focus on Sleep
Fatigue is a huge problem in MS and when you do not get enough sleep during the night, that only makes things worse. Sleep disturbances are common in people with MS due to spasms, depression or anxiety, pain, the frequent need to urinate at night (nocturia), or because of side effects of medications (corticosteroids like Solu-Medrol are notorious for causing sleep disturbances).
Keep your energy levels as high as possible by creating strong sleep habits and see your doctor if your insomnia continues. By sleeping enough, sleeping soundly and falling asleep quickly, you will get the rest you need. This will help maintain your energy level.