Aging MS Patients Are Focus of UT Dell Medical School Initiative

Older patients more susceptible to disease progression, treatment complications

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by Mary Chapman |

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A team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School are looking to establish best practices for managing multiple sclerosis (MS) in older adults, citing a relative lack of of research on the disease in people older than 50.

Led by Leorah Freeman, MD, PhD, the Healthy Aging with MS research initiative and clinical program seeks to create a multidisciplinary clinic and collaborative care model that focuses on older patients’ needs.

MS symptoms such as problems with balance, sleeping, muscle weakness, fatigue can often just look like getting older. Because the progressive neurodegenerative disorder can result in pain and disability, Freeman believes patients should consider their advancing age when addressing the needs and challenges of the disease.

To make that happen, she will be working alongside fellow MS specialists Ethan Meltzer, MD, and Duriel Hardy, MD, as well as a physician’s assistant, nurse, social worker, clinical pharmacist, and a dietitian.

“If we can bring a team to meet the needs of older adults with MS, then we’re not only listening one on one, but we’re listening collectively,” Freeman, the director of the university’s Multiple Sclerosis Imaging and Outcomes Research Laboratory, said in a university news release. “We can make a huge difference in the coordination of care.”

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MS and getting older

MS does change with age, making caring for older patients more complex. They are more at risk for disease progression, when symptoms increase and worsen, and more susceptible to complications from treatments that suppress the immune system.

“As you get older, you’re more likely to have comorbid conditions,” said Freeman, who has been gathering data from her older patients to identify biomarkers of disease progression and gauge their therapeutic responses. “You can have cancer. You can have dementia of other causes. You can have neuropathies or cardiovascular disease. Taking a broad view is important when we look at the aging population because MS can explain a lot, but it doesn’t always explain everything.”

Freeman, who also cares for patients at Dell’s Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center, said her aim is to focus on the proper approach for each symptom so patients can thrive.

“The vision for our Healthy Aging with MS program is to deliver care that is specifically tailored to the needs of people living with MS as they get older,” she said. “At the same time, our goal is to answer the research questions that matter most to our patients and to provide meaningful education to help them on their journey with MS.”

Freeman plans to hold focus groups to determine how older patients want their care structured and delivered. She also plans to study what drives MS progression and disability in older people, as well as the risks they face in taking multiple MS medications.