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Age brings all kinds of changes to a woman's life. The added wisdom and knowledge are welcome. Thinning bones, hot flashes, and memory lapses? Not so much.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) can add to the challenges of aging. Walking, balance, bone strength, and bladder control all become bigger issues in older women with MS than in those without it. MS treatment also gets more complex for women as they age.

On the positive side, new treatments are helping women (and men) with MS live longer. Managing symptoms and focusing on a healthy lifestyle can help make those years better, too.

MS and Menopause: Managing Dueling Symptoms

MS changes with age. Early on it's often the relapsing-remitting form. You alternate between relapses and symptom-free periods. As you get older, MS becomes more of a progressive disease. You might notice your MS symptoms start to get worse just as you reach menopause.

In menopause, your ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Levels of these hormones decline and then eventually disappear. That hormone drop ushers in symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and fatigue.

MS brings its own set of symptoms, many of which are similar to those of menopause. Both conditions can affect your mood, memory, sleep, sex, and bladder control. It can be hard to tell whether your symptoms are those of menopause or MS.

Hormone therapy, an effective treatment for some menopause symptoms, might also help with some MS symptoms. Some menopausal women with MS who try hormone therapy report improvements in their symptoms and their quality of life.

Aging and Your Bones

Women over 50 are already at high risk for osteoporosis. MS makes you even more likely to have weak bones.

Long-term steroids that treat MS relapses can cause you to lose bone density. Too little weight-bearing exercise because of mobility issues also weakens bones.

Ask your doctor if you need a bone density scan. If your bones are weak, you can take some steps to shore them up, including:

  • Get extra calcium and vitamin D
  • Do weight-bearing exercises like walking and stair climbing
  • Limit alcohol
  • Avoid smoking or other things that weaken bones
  • Speak with your doctor to see if you are at risk for fractures and need to start treatment for osteoporosis

MS Treatment as You Age

Treatment for MS is basically the same for people of all ages. But your body doesn’t clear medication as easily as you age, so you may get more side effects from your MS medications. If this happens, your doctor might need to adjust the dose.

Some people can safely go off their medication after age 60. At this point, these drugs may not be helpful anymore. Some could even increase your risk for infections. Your doctor will weigh the need to control your symptoms against the risks of your medication when deciding whether to take you off treatment.

Though aging can bring changes for women with MS, they aren't all bad. Growing older can also help you make peace with your condition. Research shows that people in their 50s and 60s who have MS have less depression and a better quality of life than those in their 30s and 40s.

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SOURCES:

APA PsycNet: "Subjective well-being differs with age in multiple sclerosis: A brief report."

Cleveland Clinic: "Disease-Modifying Therapy for MS: Discontinuing After Age 60 Appears Safe."

Frontiers in Neurology: "Effects of Menopause in Women with Multiple Sclerosis: An Evidence-Based Review."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Introduction to Menopause."

Mayo Clinic: "Aging: What to Expect," "Menopause: Diagnosis & treatment."

Multiple Sclerosis: "Aging with multiple sclerosis - A longitudinal study of physical function, mental health, and memory in two cohorts of US women."

Multiple Sclerosis Journal: "Exploration of changes in disability after menopause in a longitudinal multiple sclerosis cohort."

National MS Society: "Aging with Multiple Sclerosis," "Osteoporosis," "Study Shows Life Expectancy for People with MS Increasing Over Time, But Still Lower Than the General Population -- Treating other medical conditions may increase lifespan."

NHS: "Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms."

UCSD: "Osteoporosis Risk Factors."