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Analysing the causes of multiple sclerosis in elderly patients

What is multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive neurological condition that affects the central nervous system. It involves the immune system attacking sheaths of nerve cells resulting in nerve damage and scar tissue. This means the brain can no longer send signals to the rest of the body effectively. There is more than one type of Multiple Sclerosis, the differences being how the body is affected over time by them.

About 85% of people are diagnosed with Relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). This causes new symptoms to appear periodically, which are referred to as relapses, flare-ups or exacerbations. These symptoms then fade, either partially or completely.

Primary-progressive MS (PPMS) is a much less common form, with only about 10-15% of people diagnosed with it. This is where the person doesn’t typically have relapses, but gradual onset of symptoms.

If a person’s symptoms begin to steadily worsen and the time between relapses shortens, the condition is referred to as Secondary-progressive MS (SPMS). This would also mean that there is less improvement between relapses.

MS Symptoms in elderly patients

While the onset of Multiple Sclerosis is typically in a person’s 20s, 30s or 40s, the condition known as ‘late onset’ exists where people are diagnosed at an older age, although this is rarer. According to Practical Neurology, “Only 3.4% of people with MS are diagnosed with RMS after age 50, considered late-onset MS, and only 1% are diagnosed after the age 60, considered very late-onset MS.”
Clinicians are recognising that the average age of diagnosis is getting later and are therefore devoting more time to the study of how MS affects people as they age, with the Lancet publishing research on how being diagnosed later in life leads to more permanent disability.

Early signs of MS in elderly patients

Like most conditions, living with MS is individualised, meaning that while a person may have similar symptoms to another, their experience with MS will be unique to them. Symptoms of MS may have been manifesting for years before someone seeks a diagnosis, putting them down to more natural signs of ageing such as tremors, fatigue, stiffness or spasms, incontinence problems, and cognitive decline.

What are the causes of MS

MS isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ condition, and while there may be similarities in someone’s journey, everyone will have their own unique experience. While symptoms will alter from person to person the cause of MS is usually fairly uniform, caused by the immune system attacking sheaths of nerve cells. This then results in nerve damage and subsequent difficulties with mobility and physical tasks.

Can multiple sclerosis be genetic?

According to the MS Society, while genes do play a part in who gets MS, just because a parent has the condition it doesn’t mean their child will develop it. This is because there isn’t a single gene that causes MS. “Most people who’ve got genes linked to MS won’t get the condition…While MS can occur more than once in a family, it’s more likely that this won’t happen.” This is because lifestyle and environmental factors also play a large part in who develops MS. If it was only genes that affected the likelihood, then identical twins would be affected the same way, but according to the MS Society, if one identical twin gets MS, “the other usually doesn’t. For every 1000 people who have an identical twin with MS, 180 will get MS (820 won’t).”

What environmental factors cause multiple sclerosis?

Evidence shows that while genetic factors do a play a part in eventual diagnosis, environmental and lifestyle factors also have a big influence on the likelihood of whether someone will develop MS or not. There is also evidence that people who smoke are roughly twice as likely to develop MS compared with those who don’t. There is also evidence connecting a lack of sunlight and vitamin D to increased risk of Multiple Sclerosis. Overcoming MS tells us that “MS is more common in countries far from the equator, which could mean that a lack of sunlight and low vitamin D levels may play a role in the condition.”

Is multiple sclerosis caused by infection?

Research suggests that the Epstein-Barr virus (which is also responsible for glandular fever), might trigger the immune system in such a way that the person develops MS. MS attacks the myelin sheaths that protect neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and it’s been suggested by researchers that the EBV may be responsible. According to the Harvard Chan school, EBV is a “herpes virus that…establishes a latent, lifelong infection of the host.” However, there is still ongoing research to discover why only a small percentage of people infected with EBV then go on to develop MS, as EBV infects “approximately 95% of adults, (while) MS is a relatively rare disease.” In addition, it takes about ten years from time of infection for the onset of MS symptoms to become obvious.

Risk factors for multiple sclerosis

Habits that are developed from a young age can influence the odds of developing MS, which is why it’s vital to try and develop a healthy lifestyle from childhood. Evidence has been presented that suggest people who consume higher amounts of cow’s milk from youth may have higher risk factors for MS and strengthens the links between MS and a diet high in saturated fat. Stress is also suggested as a risk factor for developing MS, and according to Overcoming MS, studies have shown that “many people who have been diagnosed with MS have been exposed to high levels of stress in the weeks or months before the onset of symptoms,” and can also worsen old symptoms.

Multiple sclerosis and obesity

Links have been made between the increasing levels of obesity in society and the growing number of MS cases being diagnosed. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Trust, “Obesity can increase your risk of getting MS, make your MS symptoms more severe and harder to deal with, trigger more frequent relapses and also accelerate the progression of MS towards increasing disability.” Having a genetic predisposition to MS and being overweight can also increase the risk of developing MS exponentially. Being obese can influence mobility generally and decrease an individual’s ability to undertake daily tasks, so if the person is also living with MS it can lead to life becoming more difficult to manage.

Multiple sclerosis gender ratio

For reasons that are as yet unknown to researchers, being female makes developing MS around 2 to 3 times more likely. According to the MS Trust, MRI brain scans have revealed more inflammatory lesions in the brains of women living with MS than men, however men have a higher risk of developing primary progressive MS (PPMS). Men also appear to have more neurodegeneration than women do.

Smoking and multiple sclerosis

It’s widely known that smoking can have a detrimental effect on health generally, so it makes sense that there would also be links to it contributing to the development and progression of MS. Research from Overcoming MS states that smoking and even passive smoking doubles your risk of MS, while smokers progress to secondary progressive MS (SPMS) four times faster than non-smokers. Mobility in MS is also negatively affected by smoking, as smokers have a 90% increased risk of mobility issues than non-smokers.

Multiple sclerosis care for the elderly with Helping Hands

Because we’ve been caring for and supporting people living with Multiple Sclerosis for many years, you can trust Helping Hands with your or your loved one’s MS needs. We offer support within our customers’ own homes so that they can avoid having to move out of the house they love and into residential care. You and your loved one can be reassured that we are experts in delivering care at home, and because we’ve cared for thousands of people over the last three decades – with both simple and complex support needs – we’ll never let you down. All of our care revolves around you, and we only believe in person-centred care at all times. We offer both visiting care and live-in care that supports your routines and preferences so that you receive the care that’s perfect for you. Our support is fully managed by us across the whole of England and Wales – we don’t operate franchises – meaning that all of our 150 branches ensure consistent continuity of care. We look after our carers the way they look after you – preserving dignity and independence at every turn. And if that wasn’t enough, we build on their existing skills and knowledge, plus their natural qualities of compassion and kindness, to always offer you the most exemplary standards of care you’ll find in the industry. Talk to our friendly customer care team today to discover how we could be supporting you or your loved one living with Multiple Sclerosis.