Why Are Adults with Cerebral Palsy at Risk of Disease?
Children normally develop cerebral palsy, a type of birth injury, as a result of brain damage before, during, or shortly after birth. These injuries can affect different parts of the brain, causing permanent impairment.
Without treatment, children with cerebral palsy may experience complications, such as serious illnesses, as they enter adulthood.
The American Academy of Neurology study, published in 2019, found that adults with cerebral palsy are 75% more likely to develop a chronic disease than those without.
What Is a Chronic Disease?
A chronic disease, also called a noncommunicable disease, is a long-lasting illness that develops over months or years and cannot spread from one person to another.
Common chronic diseases include:
- Cardiovascular (heart) diseases
- Respiratory diseases
The American Academy of Neurology study noted that a decrease in physical activity, combined with a loss of muscle mass, may increase the risk of chronic disease among people with cerebral palsy.
Types of Chronic Illnesses Linked to Cerebral Palsy in Adults
The American Academy of Neurology study found that cerebral palsy in adults especially increased the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Cerebral Palsy and Cardiovascular Diseases
The WHO notes that cardiovascular diseases kill over 17.9 million people each year — more than any other chronic disease.
Cardiovascular diseases include:
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart failure
- Hypertensive disease (high blood pressure)
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
The American Academy of Neurology study found that those with cerebral palsy had a higher risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, and high blood pressure. These findings support previous data that linked cerebral palsy in adults to chronic diseases.
For example, a 2015 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that adults with cerebral palsy had a greater risk of strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular conditions.
Cerebral Palsy and Respiratory Diseases
3.9 million people die each year from respiratory diseases, according to the WHO.
Common respiratory diseases include:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
In the American Academy of Neurology study, researchers looked at asthma and COPD only. Those with cerebral palsy had a higher risk of both diseases than those born without the condition.
Other studies came to similar conclusions. The 2015 JAMA study found that adults with cerebral palsy were much more likely to develop asthma and emphysema.
Further, a 2017 study published by the medical journal Dove Medical Press found that adults with cerebral palsy had a higher risk of asthma.
Cerebral Palsy and Other Chronic Diseases
Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are not the only chronic illnesses linked to cerebral palsy in adults, according to the American Academy of Neurology study.
Other chronic illnesses linked to cerebral palsy in adults include:
- Bone problems: According to the Dove Medical Press study, cerebral palsy in adults increased the risk of osteopenia (weak bones) and osteoporosis (brittle and fragile bones) when compared to healthy adults. Further, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation reports that up to 50% of children with cerebral palsy may develop osteoporosis.
- Cancer: Cancer kills 9 million people every year, according to the WHO. The American Academy of Neurology study did not find an increased risk of cancer in adults with cerebral palsy. However, an analysis of 36 studies by researchers in England, Ireland, and the United States found that those with cerebral palsy were more likely to die from cancer.
- Diabetes: Like cancer, the American Academy of Neurology study did not find a significant link between diabetes and cerebral palsy. That said, the 2015 JAMA study found that those with cerebral palsy had an increased risk of diabetes.
- Epilepsy: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 children with cerebral palsy will also have epilepsy. Cerebral palsy and epilepsy often occur alongside one another because both are caused by brain injuries.
There is no guarantee that an adult with cerebral palsy will develop a chronic disease. Still, those affected with the birth injury can take steps to reduce their risk of contracting chronic illnesses.
Preventing Cerebral Palsy Chronic Diseases
While chronic illnesses cannot be completely prevented, those with cerebral palsy have options to limit their risk.
Good ways to prevent chronic disease include:
- Exercise: A lack of physical activity can cause muscle deterioration and heart damage — all of which can increase the risk of chronic disease. Physical therapy can keep an adult active and ease other cerebral palsy symptoms such as muscle spasticity.
- Maintaining a good diet: Cerebral palsy in adults can make eating difficult or even impossible, leading to malnutrition. If someone you love has cerebral palsy, ensure that their doctors monitor their nutrition and provide tips to help keep them healthy.
- Medications: Under supervision from a doctor, medications can help reduce certain cerebral palsy symptoms (such as rigid muscles). Medications can also reduce the risk of related conditions like epilepsy. Further, medications may help slow the progression of a chronic disease if it sets in.
These steps can help adults with cerebral palsy stay healthy, improve their quality of life, and avoid chronic diseases.