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New Study Reports on MS and Lifespan in the United States

January 30, 2014

A new study of more than 30,000 people with MS and 89,000 people without MS enrolled in a U.S. health plan found that enrollees with MS had a lifespan that on average was six years less than enrollees without MS. The study adds to evidence from Europe and Canada that indicates a somewhat reduced lifespan in some people with MS, but did not address the question of whether modern treatment practices and long-term use of disease-modifying therapies can increase longevity and quality of life. David Kaufman, ScD (Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University) and colleagues report their findings in the journal MS and Related Disorders (Published online December 26, 2013).

Background: Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord).  MS is not considered a fatal disease as the majority of people with it live a normal life-span.  Evidence gathered in European countries and Canada has indicated that in some people, MS can affect life expectancy.

The Study: The team compared longevity (survival and mortality patterns) in 30,402 people with MS and a matched group of 89,818 people without MS, all drawn from the Optum Insight Research database from the years 1996-2009. This database contains billing claims for more than 39 million individuals insured through United Health Care. Death information was obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Social Security Administration.

The results indicate that for the group as a whole, the lifespan of people with MS in this study was six years shorter than those in the control group, with the male lifespan being shorter in both groups. The median lifespans were 81 years for women with MS and 86 for female control subjects without MS, and 78 for men with MS and 85 for male subjects without MS. However, the authors point out some limitations of the study, including that they did not look at individuals’ type or severity of MS, and information on individuals’ other medical conditions was limited to what was available during the enrollment period in the health plan.

Conclusions: This study adds to other evidence from Europe and Canada indicating that the lifespan of people with MS is somewhat reduced. Further studies are needed to determine whether treatment can moderate these effects on lifespan. At least one study has suggested that individuals who received active treatment during a clinical trial of interferon beta tended to live longer than those who had received placebo during the trial. The National MS Society is supporting a study by University of British Columbia researchers of individuals in Canadian and French health care databases, which seeks to verify and potentially expand on this finding.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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