Whether you’ve had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for years or have recently developed the disease, you may wonder what to expect during your golden years. Here’s what you need to know.
MS, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, is an autoimmune disease. For unknown reasons, a patient’s immune system launches an attack on bodily tissues. In people with MS, the target is myelin, a fatty covering that protects nerve fibers in the spinal cord and brain. Without this coating, nerves cannot properly transmit messages and can become damaged.
Is It MS or Something Else?
Aging comes with its own set of physical changes: increased muscle weakness, diminished senses of taste and hearing, altered sleep patterns, osteoporosis, less bladder control, cognitive issues, and more. If you have MS, some of these changes may already be familiar. This is all the more true because the great majority of people who develop the disease later have progressive MS: a gradual but steady loss of function because of permanent nerve damage (as opposed to the relapsing-remitting type, with periods of disability flares followed by times of freedom from symptoms). What is more, MS can exacerbate normal changes that occur in older adults.
Since many signs of aging overlap with those of your condition, there is room for uncertainty: what is “normal” aging and what is due to your condition?
For this reason, it is vital to keep your primary care physician, MS healthcare provider, and any other specialists apprised of all your symptoms. This is especially important since more than half of Americans will develop two or more chronic conditions as they grow older.
The Necessity of Routine Health Care
People with multiple sclerosis should not neglect routine exams and preventive measures:
- Mammograms and pelvic exams
- Annual blood tests for anemia and cholesterol
- Skin exams
- Eye examinations (changes in visual health are not always due to MS)
- Routine non-live immunizations like pneumonia, flu and tetanus vaccines
Is Living an Optimal Life Possible?
The answer to this question is yes, if you take a few steps to manage your condition. First, it is important to discuss medical treatments with your provider. While there are fewer medications that are effective for the types of multiple sclerosis affecting golden-agers (and their safety might be a concern), you do not need to suffer or live with a reduced quality of life.
Occupational therapy can teach patients new ways of maneuvering and performing everyday tasks. Therapists can also recommend home modifications, like changing the height of kitchen counters, putting a bench in the bathtub or shower and making changes to storage areas to ensure that necessary items are within easy reach.
Physical therapists can recommend exercises to maintain muscle strength and provide massage and pain management therapies. Exercising at home maintains the benefits between visits.
Things to Do
On the subject of exercise, keeping moving can boost balance, muscle strength, coordination and stamina. Swimming is especially beneficial; water provides gentle resistance, it is soothing and it cools off people who tend to overheat. If you don’t have a pool or beach nearby—or can’t get to one—stretching, mild aerobics, tai chi, yoga, walking and riding a stationary bike are good alternatives.
Getting enough Zs is important. It’s while you are sleeping that your body regenerates, and your energy levels are restored. Practice good sleep hygiene: follow a relaxing bedtime routine, turn off electronics, stay away from caffeine and alcohol in the evening and keep your room dark and quiet. A daytime nap can make up for lost sleep time at night.
Keep cool. Symptoms tend to increase along with your body temperature. Avoid hot environments or use cooling vests and other helpful items.
As with many disorders, stress may jump-start or aggravate your symptoms. Massage, deep, slow breathing, meditation, listening to music and gentle exercises are helpful.
Eating right is important. Diets rich in omega-3s (found in fatty fish, avocados and olive oil) and containing little saturated fat can keep symptoms at bay. Some studies show that vitamin D may be beneficial as well.
With a bit of planning, cooperation with healthcare providers and some tips for living with MS, you can enjoy a high quality of life in your golden years.