Cerebral palsy isn’t a progressive condition, but symptoms and functional impairment may change over time. Factors like age at the time of diagnosis and support may make a difference.

Cerebral palsy is a group of neurological disorders commonly diagnosed during infancy or early childhood. Brain damage is the common cause.

Cerebral palsy involves permanent, lifelong impairment that can affect body movement, muscle coordination, learning, hearing, and speech.

The disorders are considered “nonprogressive.” This means the brain damage that led to cerebral palsy doesn’t get worse over time. But, symptoms of cerebral palsy may change during a person’s lifetime, and functional impairment may get worse with age for some people.

Although the brain damage that causes cerebral palsy isn’t progressive, symptoms can change or get worse over time.

Emerging research suggests that functional impairment and secondary complications of cerebral palsy may get worse with age.

Adults with cerebral palsy may experience a higher rate of chronic health conditions, reduced physical activity, and an increased risk of musculoskeletal complications.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, most people with cerebral palsy experience some form of premature aging by the time they reach their 40s as a result of stress and strain from the disease.

Also, adults with cerebral palsy report difficulty with social engagement, which may lead to mental health challenges and lower quality of life.

A 2023 study found that a lack of medical and rehabilitative care for adults with cerebral palsy may lead to a variety of respiratory, musculoskeletal, and related complications. Early intervention in children with cerebral palsy is crucial, but the researchers concluded that proactive care throughout adulthood is also essential.

Common complications of cerebral palsy

In children, complications of cerebral palsy may include:

  • intellectual disability and learning difficulties
  • seizure disorder
  • delayed growth and development
  • spinal deformities
  • osteoarthritis
  • impaired vision
  • hearing loss
  • speech and language disorders
  • incontinence
  • muscle contractures
  • inactivity
  • malnutrition
  • bone fractures
  • mental health conditions

In adults, complications of cerebral palsy may include:

  • premature aging
  • difficulties performing tasks at work
  • mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
  • chronic pain and fatigue
  • postimpairment syndrome, which can involve pain, fatigue, weakness, arthritis, and bone deformities
  • osteoarthritis and degenerative arthritis
  • other medical conditions, such as hypertension, incontinence, bladder dysfunction, and difficulty swallowing

Current research also suggests adults with cerebral palsy have an increased risk of:

In children, the symptoms of cerebral palsy may change over time, but the condition generally remains stable.

For example, a child with mild cerebral palsy may have slight difficulty walking. This problem will persist throughout the child’s lifetime and may improve with supportive treatment, but the child will not lose additional motor skills as a result of cerebral palsy.

If a child experiences a continuous loss of motor skills, it’s more likely the result of a condition other than cerebral palsy. This could include genetic or muscle disease, metabolism disorder, or nervous system tumors.

As people with cerebral palsy age, they may experience worsening impairment and develop secondary complications. Symptoms of complications may include:

  • increasing chronic pain and fatigue
  • progressive muscle stiffness and spasms
  • sudden or progressive weakness
  • bone fractures during physical therapy sessions
  • symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • development of other health conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension

Research from 2013 suggests secondary factors related to cerebral palsy may worsen functional impairment during adulthood. These factors include:

  • being less physically active
  • obesity
  • premature sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass)

Physical training and nutritional intervention may help prevent worsening impairment, but more research is needed.

Other studies suggest people with cerebral palsy don’t receive adequate medical and rehabilitative care during adulthood, which leads to worsening impairment and secondary complications.

One reason is that research and care of cerebral palsy has focused primarily on children. Another reason is that limited federal and community resources are available to adults with the disorder.

As more children with cerebral palsy live into adulthood, more research is needed on how to better support adults living with the disorder.

Most people with mild to moderate cases of cerebral palsy have near-typical life expectancies. In fact, almost all children with cerebral palsy survive into adulthood.

An estimated 80% of people with cerebral palsy live beyond 58 years old.

But, while life expectancy has greatly increased over the past few decades, children with the most severe disability have lower survival rates.

The brain damage that causes cerebral palsy doesn’t get worse, but symptoms and impairment may change or worsen over time. New research shows that adults with cerebral palsy may develop secondary complications that lead to increased impairment with age.

Children with mild to moderate cerebral palsy live into adulthood with a near-typical life expectancy. Ongoing medical care during adulthood is key for improving quality of life.