Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS for short and also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a disorder that causes the death of neurons throughout the body that control voluntary muscles. It is characterized by stiffness of the muscles, muscle contractions, and increased weakness of the muscles as they decrease in size. Although ALS may start out small, eventually the patient will have difficulty speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing.
Between 5 and 10% of ALS cases are due to heredity. If one of the parents has the disease, the offspring are 50% more likely to contract it also due to the hereditary factor. All other cases are due to other factors and researchers are busy trying to determine exactly what causes this disease.
The risk factors that have already been discovered include age, since most cases begin to appear between 40 and 60 years, and gender, because slightly more women than men will have ALS before 65 years (after 70, sex does not influence problem as it becomes more balanced between men and women). Environmental factors such as smoking, exposure to environmental toxins, and military service are also being studied. It is not clear why more veterans get ALS than those who have not done military service, but researchers are looking at continued exertion, exposure to metals and chemicals, and traumatic injuries as other contributing factors to ALS.
So what causes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to attack an otherwise healthy person? It could be a genetic mutation, it could be a chemical imbalance like having too much glutemate that has been found to be toxic to cells, it could be a disorganized immune response, or it could be a problem of mishandling proteins. This is where research is heading right now in an attempt to narrow down how a person is affected and what we can do to stop this terrible disease.
Some of the first signs of ALS include difficulty walking, falling, stumbling, hand weakness, clumsiness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and muscle cramps. ALS starts slowly, usually in the hands, feet, or extremities, and then spreads to other muscle groups. Unfortunately, those who have ALS have between two and four years before they claim it, although 10% of patients live ten years after diagnosis. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure, and some will also develop dementia near the end. This is a horrible disease, with no cure, but one that research teams are trying to understand.