For many sufferers of the degenerative autoimmune disorder multiple sclerosis (MS), their experience is akin to a horrifying carousel ride. Its symptoms, caused by a degradation of the fatty myelin that coats the connective nerve fibers of our nervous system, are unpredictable and ever-changing in its severity and presentation. Depending on where nerve damage occurs, people living with MS may suffer blindness, numbness of the limbs, tremors, and slurred speech, among many other maladies, with these symptoms waning and waxing for most of their lives. Worse still, as concluded by a new study in Neurology, it’s a ride that likely ends sooner for those with MS. The study found that median life expectancy for people with MS was 76 years, compared to 83 years for those without MS.

The authors examined the health records of 5,797 MS patients in Manitoba, Canada from 1984 to 2012 and compared them to a matched sample of 28,807 healthy individuals living in Manitoba as well. While it seems like those with MS have been living longer than in previous times, the authors concluded the risk of dying early is still doubled among MS sufferers compared to the average person, and three times higher for those under 59, as compared to those without MS under 59. "Despite studies that show MS survival may be improving over time, the more than 2.5 million people affected worldwide by this disabling disease still face a risk of dying earlier, specifically those who are diagnosed younger," said study author Dr. Ruth Ann Marrie of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, in a press release. This risk is particularly higher among younger MS patients because the disease has more time to progress and wear away the nervous system than with individuals who developed it later in life, the authors explain.

More specifically, the authors found that people living with MS were more likely to develop later depression, but not any more likely to have comorbid conditions like hypertension or diabetes than the healthy group. While people with MS were more likely to die sooner when they were afflicted with these diseases, it wasn’t to a greater degree than the healthy population. For 44 percent of the sample studied, it was MS that directly led to their deaths, but nearly as many died of cancer, cardiovascular, or respiratory illnesses. The authors hope that their research can demonstrate that while we’ve come a long way to helping sufferers of MS cope with their chronic condition, there is still much ground to cover, especially in treating accompanying health complications. “Treating other conditions better may be a way of improving survival," said Marrie.

Source: Marrie R, Elliott L, Marriott J, et al. Effect of comorbidity on mortality in multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2015