Multiple Sclerosis is Becoming a Disease of Older Americans

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
February 18, 2024
Older woman talking to doctor

About one million Americans live with multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s often considered a younger person’s disease, as diagnoses tend to occur between ages 20 and 40. But you can be diagnosed with MS at any age.

When you’re diagnosed closer to age 50, it’s known as late onset multiple sclerosis or LOMS. Two examples include actresses Christina Applegate (diagnosed at age 49) and Annette Funicello (diagnosed at age 50). And a diagnosis after age 60 it’s considered very late onset MS or VLOMS.

The problem is the average age of Americans with MS is rising. For years, about 0.5 percent of new MS cases were diagnosed as LOMS and VLOMS. However, the percentage of new LOMS and VLOMS cases are rising and they’re associated with a few additional complications.

Some experts speculate a couple of reasons for this. First is longevity. Americans are living longer. The longer you live, the higher your risk for developing chronic conditions like MS. Second, diagnostics have become better at detecting MS. This means that it’s possible Americans diagnosed with MS at an older age were living with it for years with overlooked symptoms.

Furthermore, improved treatments are helping younger MS patients live longer. While positive, it has a downside -- these patients live with a more progressive disease along with the challenges of normal aging.    

“Multiple sclerosis is rising in the U.S. and it’s a concern for our older population,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Understanding the disease may help prevent or control the condition.”

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

MS is an inflammatory disorder in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerves of the of the central nervous system. The damaged nerves cause communication problems between the brain and the optic nerve (affecting the eyes) and spinal cord (affecting the entire body). The condition usually begins as flare-ups with recovery periods, known as relapsing-remitting MS, but over time, progresses into a chronic, debilitating disease that involves symptoms such as:

  • Muscle tightness, weakness, stiffness and spasms 
  • Movement issues, walking problems, loss of coordination
  • Depression, anxiety and mood swings 
  • Pain
  • Vision loss, double vision
  • Changes in sensation 
  • Changes in bowel and bladder function 
  • Tremors
  • Memory decline
  • Loss of ability to walk independently, relying on a wheelchair

Additional complications associated with LOMS and VLOMS include:

  • Epilepsy
  • Dementia
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • High number of relapses

Potential Causes and Risk Factors of Multiple Sclerosis

At this point, researchers aren’t fully sure what causes MS; however, they’re leaning towards viruses. In fact, studies already identified Epstein-Barr -- the virus responsible for mononucleosis – to be a possible leading cause of MS, according to a study published in Science.  

But there’s also a list of additional viral and bacterial infections currently being studied to better understand their potential role in the development of MS. These include measles, canine distemper, human herpes virus-6 and Chlamydia pneumonia.

There also are a handful of risk factors that raise your chances of developing MS, according to the Mayo Clinic. These include:

  • Being a woman. Women are diagnosed with MS between two and three times as often as men.
  • Having a gene on chromosome 6p21.
  • Having an immediate family with it.
  • Being white of Northern European descent.
  • Living in far from the equator. Living close to the equator helps you absorb enough sunlight to produce natural vitamin which strengthens your immune system, lowering your risk for condition like MS.  
  • Having an autoimmune disorder such as thyroid disease, pernicious anemia, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease.

Lowering Your Risk and Controlling Multiple Sclerosis

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends adopting the following lifestyle habits to help prevent and/or control MS.

Control your weight. Obesity raises inflammation levels, contributing to the risk of developing and progression of MS. It also may help trigger MS activity, such as relapses and more lesions. Check out these scientifically proven ways to lose weight >>

Quit smoking. Smoking contributes to the development of MS, increased severity of MS and hastened disease process; quitting smoking has been shown to slow the disease progression. Here’s more about smoking cessation >>

Take vitamin D supplements. Low vitamin D levels are a risk factor for MS. Statistics show that people living closer to the equator are less likely to develop MS. Experts attribute the lower risk to greater amounts of sun exposure – a natural producer of vitamin D. Learn about the link between low vitamin D levels and dementia >>

Strengthen your immune system. A strong immune system can help protect you from contracting viral and bacterial infections. Try these immune boosting tips >>

Manage stress. Some patients believe their MS was triggered by stress or a traumatic event; however, results from studies that looked at stress as a cause of MS conflict. But there is solid evidence that stress can exacerbate MS symptoms. Here’s more about stress control >>    

“The most important tip I can provide is to work closely with your primary care physician,” says Kaminetsky. “Your PCP may be able to help you lower risk factors associated with MS, recognize warning signs and refer you to a neurologist.”

If you don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. As part of the MDVIP Wellness Program, your doctor can help you live a healthier lifestyle, which may help lower your risk for developing chronic conditions. Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health » 

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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