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Multiple Sclerosis Prognosis and Your Life Expectancy

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA on December 12, 2016Written by Robin Madell on February 14, 2013

Not fatal, but no cure

When it comes to the prognosis for multiple sclerosis (MS), there’s both good news and bad news. Although there is no known cure for MS, there is some good news about life expectancy. Because MS is not a fatal disease, people who have MS essentially have the same life expectancy as the general population.

A closer look at prognosis

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), the majority of people who have MS will experience a relatively normal life span. On average, most people with MS live about seven years less than the general population. Most people with MS tend to die from many of the same conditions as people who don’t have the condition, including cancer and heart disease. Apart from cases of severe MS, which are rare, the prognosis for longevity is generally good.

However, people who have MS also have to contend with other issues that can decrease their quality of life. Even though most will never become severely disabled, many experience symptoms that cause pain, discomfort, and inconvenience.

Another way of evaluating the prognosis for MS is to examine how disabilities resulting from the condition’s symptoms may affect people. According to the NMSS, around two thirds of people diagnosed with MS are able to walk without a wheelchair two decades after their diagnosis. Some people will need crutches or a cane to remain ambulatory. Others use an electric scooter or wheelchair to help them cope with fatigue or balance difficulties.

Symptom progression and risk factors

It is hard to predict how MS will progress in every person. The severity of the disease varies widely from person to person.

  • Around 20 percent of those with MS will have no symptoms or only mild symptoms after an initial clinical diagnosis and event.
  • Around 45 percent of those with MS are not severely affected by the disease.
  • Most patients will undergo a certain amount of disease progression.

To help determine your personal prognosis, it helps to understand the risk factors that may indicate a greater chance of developing a severe form of the condition. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, women with MS generally have a better overall outlook than men. Additionally, certain factors indicate a higher risk for more severe symptoms, including:

  • if you’re over 40 at the initial onset of symptoms
  • if your initial symptoms affect more than one area of your body
  • if your initial symptoms affect mental functioning, urinary control, or motor control

Prognosis and complications

There are several other guidelines that can help predict prognosis. MS patients tend to do better if they experience:

  • few symptom attacks in the initial few years post-diagnosis
  • a longer amount of time passing between attacks
  • a complete recovery from their attacks
  • symptoms related to sensory problems, such as tingling, vision loss, or numbness
  • neurological exams that appear almost normal five years after diagnosis

While most people with MS have a close to normal life expectancy, it can be difficult for doctors to predict whether a patient’s condition will worsen or improve, since the disease varies so much from person to person.

According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, a small number of people may have a particularly rapidly progressing form of MS that can cause severe health issues early on. Severe disability can, in rare cases, lead to premature death from infections or pneumonia. In most cases, however, MS is not a fatal condition.

What can you expect?

MS generally affects quality of life more than longevity. While certain rare types of MS can potentially affect lifespan, they are the exception rather than the rule. People with MS must contend with many difficult symptoms that will affect their lifestyle, but they can rest assured that their life expectancy essentially mirrors that of people who don’t have the condition.

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