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Cerebral Palsy in Adults: Does Cerebral Palsy Get Worse with Age?

Information about cerebral palsy usually focuses on children, and for good reason — cerebral palsy is a group of disorders that impair the brain and nervous system and usually surface within a child’s first two years. But cerebral palsy isn’t just a children’s condition. There are also many adults living with cerebral palsy.

The same medical advances that have increased the life expectancy of the general population have done the same thing for cerebral palsy life span.

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Cerebral palsy in adults is becoming more common. Most people with cerebral palsy now lead long lives. However, it is only within the last 15 years that people with cerebral palsy have started to live long enough to be concerned about the effects of aging on top of a lifetime of living with disability.

Does cerebral palsy get worse with age?

With aging comes special challenges for those with cerebral palsy. Though cerebral palsy is a non-degenerative condition, meaning that it doesn’t get worse with aging, a lifetime of fighting physical impairment can mean that people with cerebral palsy often start feeling the effects of age much earlier. Cerebral palsy progression in adults is usually due to the aging process being sped up.

What are the cerebral palsy symptoms in adults?

Cerebral palsy problems in adults that people experience as they get older include:

  • Increased pain. Pain is the most common problem for older adults with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy pain in adults includes locations at the hip, knee, back and neck. People with cerebral palsy often have early-onset arthritis, as well.
  • Difficulty walking. 25% of people with cerebral palsy who walk as children lose that ability as they get older, either because of pain, or because using a wheelchair or scooter becomes easier.
  • Falls. Falls are a concern among all older people. Because people living with cerebral palsy have decreased mobility, they are at risk of falling more often, increasing the chance of serious injury.
  • Dental health problems. Many people with cerebral palsy experience issues with dental health as they get older. It may be hard to find dentists who are able or willing to work with individuals who cannot remain immobile during routine exams or for therapeutic work.
  • Long-term effects from medications. Taking many medications for many years can cause a variety of long-term problems.
  • Trouble eating and swallowing. Impaired motor function means that people with cerebral palsy can have trouble eating and swallowing food, and may have increased trouble as they get older.
  • Other health problems. Studies show that 90 percent of adults with cerebral palsy do not get regular preventive medical checkups such as mammograms, Pap smears and prostate exams. This can expose older individuals to the risk of undiagnosed conditions such as cancer.

What do we know about aging with cerebral palsy?

Scientific study of cerebral palsy and aging is still in its early days. Doctors know that people with cerebral palsy often experience the above cerebral palsy symptoms as they age, but they do not yet have a good understanding as to why.

There have not yet been the large-scale studies that follow children with cerebral palsy through adulthood necessary to discover how the aging process affects people with mild cerebral palsy. Researchers who study cerebral palsy have recently begun to raise awareness about the need for these kinds of studies.

What is cerebral palsy and where can I learn more?