Review Article | Published:

Epidemiology and treatment of multiple sclerosis in elderly populations


The prevalence of multiple sclerosis (MS) and the age of affected patients are increasing owing to increased longevity of the general population and the availability of effective disease-modifying therapies. However, ageing presents unique challenges in patients with MS largely as a result of their increased frequency of age-related and MS-related comorbidities as well as transition of the disease course from an inflammatory to a neurodegenerative phenotype. Immunosenescence (the weakening of the immune system associated with natural ageing) might be at least partly responsible for this transition, which further complicates disease management. Currently approved therapies for MS are effective in preventing relapse but are not as effective in preventing the accumulation of disability associated with ageing and disease progression. Thus, ageing patients with MS represent a uniquely challenging population that is currently underserved by existing therapeutic regimens. This Review focuses on the epidemiology of MS in ageing patients. Unique considerations relevant to this population are discussed, including the immunology and pathobiology of the complex relationship between ageing and MS, the safety and efficacy of disease-modifying therapies, when discontinuation of treatment might be appropriate and the important role of approaches to support wellness and cognition.

Key points

  • The prevalence of ageing individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS) is increasing worldwide.

  • Ageing people with MS present with unique challenges, including a high burden of comorbidities and an altered immune system profile.

  • Data on the safety and efficacy of current disease-modifying therapy regimens in elderly patients with MS are lacking, indicating the need for further studies in this specific population.

  • A substantial proportion of elderly patients with stable MS will need to consider whether to discontinue disease-modifying therapy; data are currently insufficient to provide evidence-based recommendations on this topic.

  • Complementary lifestyle modifications that promote wellness and cognition can help ageing patients with MS to manage their comorbidities and improve their quality of life.

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The authors’ research is supported in part by grants from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (HC 1411–02004) and Biogen Idec (US-MSG-15-10855) to B.W.-G. and from Advancing Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) to the Jacobs Multiple Sclerosis Center for Treatment and Research.

Reviewer information

Nature Reviews Neurology thanks M. Magyari and other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

C.B.V., D.J., K.S.K., R.Z. and B.W.-G. were involved in all aspects of article preparation. M.R. and R.H.B.B. contributed to discussions of the article content, writing and review or editing of the manuscript before submission.

Competing interests

C.B.V. declares that she has received consultancy fees from Merck/EMD Serono. M.R. declares that he has received research funding from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the US National Science Foundation. R.H.B.B. declares that he has received research support from Accorda, Biogen, Genzyme, Mallinckrodt and Novartis; consultancy fees from Biogen, Genentech, Genzyme, Novartis, Roche, Sanofi and Teva; and compensation for activities relating to continuing medical education from EMD Serono. R.Z. declares that he has received speakers’ and consultancy fees from Celgene, Claret Medical, EMD Serono, Genzyme-Sanofi, IMS Health, Novartis and Roche-Genentech and financial research support from Claret Medical, IMS Health, Intekrin, Genzyme-Sanofi and Novartis. B.W.-G. declares that she has received fees for consultancy, acting as a speaker and serving on the scientific advisory boards of Biogen Idec, EMD Serono, Genzyme-Sanofi, Novartis, Questcor and Teva Neuroscience, and financial research support from Aspreva, Biogen Idec, EMD Serono, Genzyme, the Immune Tolerance Network Clinical Trials Group, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the NIH (not related to the present work), Novartis and Teva Neuroscience. D.J. and K.S.K. declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Bianca Weinstock-Guttman.

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Fig. 1: Cellular processes involved in inflammageing and immunosenescence.
Fig. 2: The influence of ageing on MS pathophysiology.
Fig. 3: Cerebrovascular disease can mimic MS-specific pathology on MRI.