By Dennis Thompson
WEDNESDAY, May 27, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- People with multiple sclerosis may have twice the risk of dying prematurely compared to people without MS, a new study suggests.
And the study also found that for people younger than 59 with MS, the risk of an early death seemed to be tripled, compared to people without the disease.
Overall, MS patients live an average 76 years, compared with 83 years for people who don't have the disease, the study revealed.
"There are some suggestions that survival is improving over time, but there is still a gap of about six years," said lead author Dr. Ruth Ann Marrie. She is an associate professor of neurology and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.
The most common cause of death was multiple sclerosis itself, or complications related to the disease, the researchers found.
Other health problems could contribute to the early death of MS patients, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy and respiratory illness, according to the findings.
However, these risk factors did not shorten the life span of people with MS any more than they did for people without MS, the study reported.
"At least for me, it affirms the importance of focusing on a healthy lifestyle and avoiding behaviors that could exacerbate the symptoms of MS," said Tim Coetzee, chief advocacy, services and research officer for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Findings from the study were published online May 27 in the journal Neurology.
While the study made a strong case for multiple sclerosis and earlier death, it did not prove cause-and-effect.
Multiple sclerosis affects a person's brain and spinal cord by damaging the insulating layer that surrounds and protects nerve cells, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The damage distorts and blocks messages between the brain and body. This leads to symptoms such as muscle weakness, lack of coordination and balance, vision problems and trouble with thinking and memory.
To weigh the added risk of death posed by multiple sclerosis, researchers reviewed health records in the Canadian province of Manitoba. They tracked almost 6,000 people diagnosed with MS and nearly 29,000 healthy people who were the same sex and age, living in the same areas of Manitoba.
Researchers concluded that the risk of early death is doubled for people with MS. They also found that the risk of premature death is higher for younger patients.
For example, MS patients 39 and younger have about 3.7 times the average risk of early death, while those 40 to 59 have 2.9 times the risk. Patients 80 or older have 1.8 times the risk of dying earlier than others in their age range.
Slightly more than two of every five people with multiple sclerosis died from the disease or from complications common to MS patients, such as infected pressure sores, pneumonia or bladder infection, Marrie said.
This finding reinforces the need for early and aggressive treatment of MS, which can prevent much of the disability that can contribute to early death, she said.
"Some of our newer disease-modifying therapies may have an impact on mortality due to MS," Marrie said.
Care providers for MS patients also need to pay more attention to health issues that can crop up from the disease, she added. For example, they need to make sure the patient is moved often enough to avoid pressure sores that can become infected.
"It really requires everyone in the health care team to be aware of the risks and prevent them, or treat them properly," Marrie said.
After MS and its complications, the most common causes of death were circulatory system disease, cancer and respiratory disease.
Even though chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure were no more dangerous to MS patients than the general population, these factors did increase the risk of early death compared with people without these health problems.
"If we can address those factors, it really can contribute to better outcomes for people with MS," Coetzee said.