Growing Old With Cerebral Palsy: What to Expect

Raising a child with cerebral palsy (CP) comes with many challenges and rewards. As someone with CP ages, however, the difficulties don’t disappear. Cerebral palsy as an adult can cause unique aging issues. Although CP is fortunately not degenerative (it will not get worse over time), it is permanent, with no known cure. Currently, about 764,000 people are living with cerebral palsy. If your child is one of them, here’s what to expect in growing old with cerebral palsy.

Mobility Issues

Many people with cerebral palsy experience greater mobility challenges as they age. Those who were once mobile may stop ambulating as they get older, for a variety of CP-related reasons. Some adults with CP experience chronic joint pain that can interfere with mobility, while others lose efficiency of gait or suffer fatigue. Walking disorders may become more pronounced with age, as may challenges in the workplace.

Estimates show around one-fourth of people with cerebral palsy who can walk as children will lose this ability as they age. They may experience renewed impairments with motor function and balance, and have trouble performing tasks they could as children. The individual may notice the need for certain disability accommodations or mobility-assistive devices he or she did not need before – at home and in a workplace setting.

Work Problems

Often people with CP have to stop working well before the typical retirement age of 65. They may experience greater impacts on overall health and wellness than people without CP. This, combined with fatigue and mobility challenges, can be enough to lead to early retirement or job resignation. Children with cerebral palsy may find that things they could do in their youth are now difficult or impossible as they age, even before reaching “old age.”

Aging does not necessarily have to mean stopping working completely. That is up to the individual and his/her employer. If people with CP have the mindset to keep working, they may be able to move into jobs that require less mobility. An openminded employer may help someone with cerebral palsy find a suitable job as the individual ages and experiences greater mobility or health issues.

Premature Aging

Most victims of cerebral palsy show signs of premature aging between the ages of 20 and 40. They may exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, low energy, increased pain, muscle stiffness, sore joints, dental issues, and an increased risk of harmful falls. Premature aging may also come with issues from long-term medications or multiple surgeries. It is important to notice the signs of premature aging in your child, to treat symptoms and prevent them from becoming more serious health complications.

Swallowing Disorders

Like walking disorders, swallowing issues can also increase while growing old with cerebral palsy. Youth with swallowing or feeding problems may improve their abilities with rehabilitative therapy, only to regress as they age. Swallowing disorders can return in the form of difficulty chewing, coughing while eating and drinking, fluid leaking from the mouth, recurring chest congestion, poor nutrition, dehydration, or weight loss. Speech and physical therapies can help improve swallowing disorders as someone with CP ages.

Musculoskeletal Abnormalities

Children with cerebral palsy may have musculoskeletal abnormalities at a young age, but it may not cause discomfort or disability until adulthood. One of the most common issues as someone with CP ages is the early development of painful joint conditions such as osteoarthritis and degenerative arthritis. This can stem from excessive joint compression and abnormal joint surfaces taking a toll over the years. Complications of musculoskeletal abnormalities can contribute to mobility losses and overuse syndrome in old age.

Higher Risk of Injuries

The risk of personal injuries increases as someone with CP ages, just as it does with able-bodied people. Someone suffering from cerebral palsy, however, may encounter this risk sooner than others. The risk of falling increases due to greater mobility problems. Falls can cause injuries such as broken bones, muscle strains, and joint dislocation. They can also lead to traumatic head and brain injuries.

Other injury risks have to do with repetitive motion strains and overuse damage. People with cerebral palsy may end up with post-impairment syndrome as they age, a condition that stems from muscle abnormalities and repetitive motion injuries. Post-impairment syndrome can come with symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and weakness. Fatigue may be especially pronounced, as someone with cerebral palsy uses five times the amount of energy to walk and move as an able-bodied person, on average.

Achieving Goals and Leading a Fulfilling Life

It is true that people with cerebral palsy can experience premature aging, mobility regression, and greater health complications as they age. However, it’s also true that many accomplish incredible things in adulthood. As the parent of a child with CP, you have a lot to look forward to over the years. Your child can make lifelong friends, find his or her passion, prove naysayers wrong, and push the boundaries of the word “disability.” Don’t let the future overwhelm you as you look after your child with CP. Love and encouragement as your child ages can go a long way.