Cerebral Palsy and Age-Related Changes

Cerebral Palsy and Age-Related Changes

Today’s advances in medicine make death from cerebral palsy, or CP, quite rare. That means that those born with cerebral palsy have a lifespan almost as long as that of anyone else in the general population.

However, aging with cerebral palsy can look different from normal aging.

Does Cerebral Palsy Get Worse with Age?

It’s important to remember that cerebral palsy is a non-progressive and non-degenerative condition. The brain injury that causes cerebral palsy is simply there – it doesn’t actually get worse.

However, it might seem as though it gets worse because cerebral palsy can speed up the aging process. Even the little aches and pains that you might expect as your body gets older can be more intense and happen much earlier for those who have cerebral palsy.

While cerebral palsy does not get worse with age, its symptoms do.

Aging with Cerebral Palsy

Each case of cerebral palsy is different, as every brain injury that caused the condition is different. But some conditions tend to be more common among those with CP, and these conditions might get worse with age:

·        Early-onset arthritis. Those who have CP are more likely to develop arthritis earlier than others in the general senior population. This is especially true of osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis. The problem tends to show up most often in the hips, spine, and knees.

·        Increased pain. Those with cerebral palsy can begin to feel increased pain as they age, especially in the knees, hips, neck, and back. This increase in pain is quite common among elderly adults with CP. In fact, studies have found that over 43% of those with CP experience significant joint pain – and that’s before the aches and pains of normal aging kick in.1

·        Dental health issues. Often a person with CP won’t be able to remain immobile for the time it takes for a routine cleaning or other dental work. Because of this, the longer a person goes without a good cleaning or the dental care they need, the more likely they are to experience problems with their teeth, gums, and mouth as they get older.

·        Trouble with walking. Some children with CP are never able to walk, but some can walk, run, jump, and move about. But as they get older, they might slowly lose that mobility. According to Cerebral Palsy: From Diagnosis to Adult Life, about 40% of those with CP who could walk in their adolescent years lost that ability over the span of the next two decades.

·        Trouble with swallowing or eating. Those with CP often have impaired motor function that makes eating and swallowing food difficult. As they get older, those difficulties might increase.

·        Cumulative effects of medications. Many individuals with CP take a variety of medications throughout their life. Some of these medications can lead to problems with long-term use.

·        Undiagnosed conditions. It can be difficult for those with CP to get the preventative medical care that most of us take for granted. For instance, it can be very difficult for a woman with cerebral palsy to get a Pap smear or mammogram; it might be difficult for men to get a prostate exam. This lack of preventative care might mean that conditions like cancer have an opportunity to advance before they are detected.

·        Serious injuries from falls. As those with CP begin to have trouble walking, their risk of falls goes up. Weakened bones and trouble walking make fractures as the result of a fall more likely. A medical alert bracelet or wristband is a good idea to help prevent the consequences of lying on the floor for an extended time in the aftermath of a fall.

Cerebral Palsy and Premature Aging

One of the most frustrating parts of CP is that it can enhance the aging process. For instance, arthritis might appear earlier, as could muscle weakness or a loss of muscle mass. There might be many reasons for this, but one of the most significant is the energy it takes for someone with CP to complete everyday tasks. Over time, this leads to more strain on the muscles, bones, joints, and the body as a whole, which can then appear as signs of aging – and in fact, these signs of advanced aging can appear before someone hits middle age.

A Higher Risk of Fractures

Issues with mobility are usually quite prevalent for those with CP from early childhood. It’s often the result of spasticity, which is involuntary muscle contractions that cause stiffness, tremors, and pain. Over time, these contractions can lead to distortion of the body and dislocation of the joints. Problems like hip dislocation are common among those with cerebral palsy.

As a person begins to have more trouble walking, the risk of falls goes up. With so much pressure on the joints, a higher risk of dislocation, and a greater incidence of osteoporosis, someone with CP is more likely to suffer serious fractures as the result of a fall. The consequences of a hip fracture can include surgical intervention to repair or replace the hip joint as well as compromised mobility afterward, especially during the rehabilitation phase. A medical alert system is highly recommended for anyone prone to falling or injuries from falls.

Trouble with Communicating

Those with cerebral palsy often have impairments in speech, language, and hearing. This means that a person might need hearing aids or other intervention well before they reach the age where their hearing should begin to naturally decline.

And while speech and language pathologists can do a wonderful job of helping children with cerebral palsy learn to communicate in easier ways, those with CP can still face some level of social isolation that can carry into their golden years. This is especially true if they never develop the ability to speak clearly and thus find that making friends or communicating with caregivers is more difficult as they age.

Deep Fatigue

Having a disability can mean you use much more energy for the most simple tasks than someone else might. That’s especially true for those who deal with the motor control problems, chronic pain, and musculoskeletal strain associated with cerebral palsy. In fact, those with CP use up to five times more energy to move than those without a disability.2

Is it any wonder that bone-crushing fatigue happens to those who have cerebral palsy at even a young age, which only intensifies as the normal aging process continues and energy levels begin to wane?

Mental Health Challenges

Living with a disability can be difficult. Those with cerebral palsy are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. According to the Annals of Rehabilitative Medicine, those with CP are more likely to feel socially isolated and suffer from a lower quality of life than their able-bodied peers.3

Social isolation and loneliness is already a very significant problem for seniors, even if there is no disability present. According to the CDC, social isolation can lead to a much greater risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, and premature death from all causes. In fact, the risk is so great that the negative effects of social isolation are on a par with the dangers of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.4

Issues with social isolation that are common to the elderly can be exacerbated among those with cerebral palsy. That can make depression and anxiety much worse.

Helpful Tips

As you get older and the symptoms of cerebral palsy get worse, it is important to find ways to be more comfortable. Here are some tips that can help.

·        Use a medical alert system with fall detection. Between the higher risk of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, bones are weaker and joints worn down. That means that if you do fall, you run a much higher risk of a serious fracture. Medical alert technology that uses fall sensors to detect a fall can help you by alerting a monitoring center the moment an accident occurs. This means you don’t have to worry about pushing the button on your emergency fall alarm or lying on the floor in pain waiting for help– you can get help sent to your door right away, and the trained professionals at the monitoring center will stay on the line with you until that help arrives.

·        Get as much preventative care as you can. Though we’ve already talked about the challenges with getting preventative care, it’s still important to try. The most important aspect of this is routine visits to your doctor, which can help spot problems before they become bigger issues. Speak with your doctor about various ways you might be able to get more preventative care.

·        Get regular exercise. Those with CP already know that stretching is essential to making sure you keep as much mobility as possible. But weight-bearing exercises are important as well, as they can help slow the advancement of osteoporosis. However, those with CP can have difficulties with exercise. A physical therapist can create a good exercise plan for you that takes your unique needs into account.

·        Eat the right foods. You should be getting plenty of calcium, vitamin D, protein, magnesium, and phosphorus. These nutrients will help strengthen your bones and joints, preserve cartilage in the joints, and help reduce the feelings of fatigue. Talk to a nutritionist to create a meal plan that is right for you.

·        Embrace assistive devices. Do what you can to remain as independent as possible. Though canes, walkers, and wheelchairs are what you might think of first when it comes to assistive devices, there are many others that can make life easier for you, such as orthopedic shoes, adaptive utensils, reachers or “grabbers,” button hooks, long-handled brushes, and so much more. A physical or occupational therapist will have a long list of items that might help.

·        Get the support you need. Living with cerebral palsy is difficult, and can become more so as you experience premature aging. Talking to a professional counselor can help you get through the more difficult aspects, but so can a support group that consists of others who have CP. Interacting with someone who has had the same experiences as you and faces the same problems today can help. You can find this support online or in person.

As you live with cerebral palsy over the years, it is important to have a medical team in place to support you and family caregivers who can assist you. Support groups, kind friends, and a support network can help you stay happy and healthy. A personal alarm button, as well as home modifications, can help with peace of mind. Most importantly, take life one day at a time – good mental health can go a long way toward managing the physical challenges faced while aging with cerebral palsy.