Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS for short and also widely referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is disorder that causes the death of neurons throughout the body that control voluntary muscles. It is characterized by stiff muscles, muscle twitching and increased weakness in muscles as they decrease in size. Although ALS may start small, eventually the patient will have difficulty speaking, swallowing and ultimately, breathing.
Between 5 and 10% of ALS cases are due to heredity. If a parent has the disease, the offspring are 50% more likely to get it as well due to the heredity factor. All other cases are due to other factors, and researchers are busy trying to pinpoint exactly what causes this disease to occur.
Risk factors that have been found out already include age as most cases start to occur between the ages of 40-60, and sex, because slightly more women than men will have ALS before age 65 (after age 70, sex doesn’t factor into the issue as it becomes more balanced between men and women). Environmental factors like smoking, exposure to environmental toxins and service in the military are also being studied. It’s not clear why more veterans get ALS than those who have done no military service, but researchers are looking into continual exertion, exposure to metals and chemicals and traumatic injuries as other factors that contribute to ALS.
So what causes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to attack an otherwise healthy person? It could be a gene mutation, it could be a chemical imbalance like having too much glutimate which has been found to be toxic to cells, it could be a disorganized immune response or it could be a protein mishandling issue. This is where research is going at the moment in an attempt to narrow down how a person become affected and what we can do to stop this terrible disease.
Some early signs of ALS include difficulty walking, falling, tripping, hand weakness, clumsiness, slurred speech, trouble swallowing and muscle cramps. ALS starts slowly, usually in the hands, feet or limbs and then spreads to other muscle groups. Sadly, those who have ALS have between two and four years before it will claim them, although 10% of patients do live ten years past diagnosis. Most people who have ALS die from respiratory failure and some will acquire dementia near the end as well. This is a horrible disease, one that has no cure, but one in which teams of researchers are trying to understand.