Can Polio Come Back in Old Age?

Question: A friend of mine had polio when he was a kid and now the disease seems to be coming back in his old age. Have you heard of this?

Answer: The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 440,000 polio survivors in the United States may be at risk for post-polio syndrome (PPS), a condition that strikes polio survivors decades after they've recovered from an attack of the poliomyelitis virus. Various researchers estimate that PPS affects from 40 to 80 percent of polio survivors.

Common PPS symptoms include: muscle and joint weakness, fatigue, pain, muscle atrophy, difficulty breathing or swallowing, skeletal deformities, cold intolerance, and temporary interruptions of breathing while sleeping.

PPS usually progresses slowly. It is rarely life-threatening. There is no known cause for PPS. Unlike polio, PPS is not contagious.

If a person suffered from a severe case of polio, it is likely that the PPS that strikes later will also be severe. Those who had minimal symptoms from the original illness usually will have only mild symptoms when they get PPS. The risk of developing PPS is greater if you acquired polio as an adolescent or adult, rather than as a young child. Women get PPS more often than men.

There is no effective treatment for the syndrome itself. Doctors recommend that polio survivors get the proper amount of sleep, maintain a well-balanced diet, avoid unhealthy habits such as smoking and overeating, and use judicious exercise, preferably under the supervision of an experienced professional . Proper lifestyle changes, the use of assistive devices, and taking certain anti-inflammatory medications may help some of the symptoms of PPS.

Polio, also known as infantile paralysis, was lethal. It was once one of the most feared diseases in America. Shortly after polio reached its peak in the early 1950s, the disease was eradicated by a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.

Because PPS symptoms are similar to those linked with other disorders, your doctor will attempt to exclude other possible causes, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and scoliosis.

PPS has been mistaken for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig, who played baseball for the New York Yankees, died of the disease in 1941. ALS usually strikes between the ages of 40 and 70. In some countries, ALS is often called motor neuron disease.

To date, researchers are not certain what causes PPS, but they have theories.

One possibility is that the polio virus becomes active again after decades of lying dormant in the victim's cells. Another possibility involves impaired production of hormones and neurotransmitters in brain.

The most promising theory is that nerve cells that survived polio assumed the added burden of the work of dead cells. These surviving cells became overworked and weakened. This phenomenon led to new polio-like symptoms, according to the theory.

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Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."