July 28, 2014

A comprehensive, nationwide MS Society-supported study provides clues about factors that contribute to living a long and healthy life with MS


People with MS are living longer than in the past, likely attributable to a higher life expectancy in general and increasingly effective treatments for MS. Strategies for reducing disability and improving quality of life in later years have thus become of great interest, underlying the need for research in the field of aging with MS.

A national survey was recently conducted in Canada and the results were published this month in the journal BMJ Open. The answers collected from a unique group of participants helped to generate new and valuable knowledge on aging with MS.

The Study:

Dr. Michelle Ploughman and colleagues across Canada, including a number of MS Society funded researchers and neurologists, recruited participants aged 55 years or older with self-reported MS symptoms for 20 or more years from across the country, via:

  • MS clinics
  • MS Society of Canada chapters – offices located in cities across Canada that are typically the first point of contact for many people living with MS, and
  • newspaper advertisements

A total of 921 surveys were mailed out and 743 were completed and returned (80.7% response rate). The survey consisted of questions that had been selected based on prior research in a smaller sample of older people living with MS.

Five different sections were included that covered topics such as demographics, MS disease characteristics, physical health and disability, lifestyle behaviours, fatigue, mental health, and social support. Responses from the survey were compared to data collected from a sample of people over 55 years who participated in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS).


The average age of the respondents was 64.6 years and they reported living with MS for an average of 32.9 years. While the survey respondents were fairly well educated, they had lower levels of education than a similar group of individuals who completed the CCHS. Ten percent of the participants were employed, either on a full-time, part-time or casual basis, and 28.6% reported to be severely disabled, a proportion much higher than the non-MS population of the same age group in Canada (2.3%). However, the researchers did find that the MS participants had higher fitness levels than the CCHS group and were less likely to take part in risky health behaviours such as drinking alcohol and smoking.


As people with MS are living longer, studies examining older individuals in the MS population are essential to gain more information on factors and health behaviours which minimize disability and maximize quality of life.

This study was the first of its kind, as the average age of the sample was 10-25 years older than previous studies of older MS populations. The results from this study may direct future research in the field. For instance, the low levels of employment reported in the survey results points out the need for further research examining factors associated with employment or retirement as people age with MS. As well, the study highlights the importance of studying lifestyle behaviours in older MS populations. For example, data from the survey suggests that people with MS are becoming more physically active even as they age. Researchers note that previous studies in Europe demonstrate that healthy lifestyle behaviours, such as exercise, are associated with less severe and less rapid disease progression. Similar studies have also shown that poor lifestyle behaviours, such as smoking, contribute to increased risk of acquiring other conditions and lowers quality of life.

Further work in these and other areas examined in this important Canadian survey will help people living with MS to employ positive health behaviours and lead to the development of interventions that promote successful aging with MS.  


Ploughman M et al. The Canadian survey of health, lifestyle and ageing with multiple sclerosis: methodology and initial results. BMJ Open 2014 July; 4(7):e005718