Multiple sclerosis (MS) isn’t fatal, but it is a progressive disease. It is not uncommon for people with MS to become severely disabled within a few years after diagnosis, and it’s also not unusual for the symptoms of this condition to cause other health problems that could result in death. Pneumonia, infections, and falls are common causes of death among people with MS. These types of complications often aren’t directly related to the progression of MS, but rather exacerbated by its symptoms.
While these statistics can be scary, it is important to keep in mind that they are based on studies of populations that were diagnosed with MS prior to the availability of disease modifying drugs. As the current generation of MS patients ages, their lifespans should be improved by these medications that can slow down the disease’s progression.
As a result, it’s hard to predict the exact prognosis of an individual person with MS, but many factors can be used to estimate how the disease will progress over time. These factors include age at onset, the type of MS, and how fast the disease progresses. Some forms of MS, such as relapsing-remitting MS or secondary progressive MS, can lead to a long period of time where the disease is symptom-free. However, a significant percentage of these people will eventually develop a progressive form of the disease.
Generally, people who have been diagnosed with the progressive form of the disease, primary progressive MS, will have a slower rate of decline than those who have been diagnosed with relapsing-remitting or secondary progressive MS. However, even this is difficult to predict in detail for any one patient, as the speed of decline can vary greatly from person to person.
A person’s relapse rate and their recovery from each relapse can help to determine their long-term prognosis. Relapses that involve the visual, sensory, or brainstem systems tend to have a better prognosis than those that affect the cerebellar, motor, or sphincter systems. Additionally, relapses that occur more frequently or last longer are associated with worse prognoses than those that don’t.
The best way to determine a person’s prognosis for their specific type of MS is to have an open conversation with their neurologist. By using their medical knowledge, testing results, and the history of the person’s MS symptoms, neurologists can often provide an educated guess on how the person with MS will fare in the future.
The most important factor, though, is how well a person with MS takes care of their health and tries to avoid complications from the disease and other health conditions that may be related to it. In general, a healthy lifestyle and taking steps to manage other medical issues can dramatically improve a person’s life expectancy, regardless of the type of MS they have. For example, avoiding tobacco use and maintaining an active lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of lung diseases that are common in people with MS.