The term ‘ALS’ might not sound familiar even in its expanded form – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis; however, the words “ice bucket challenge” might ring a bell! That is something that has gone viral on the internet. Although many might still not know that the objective of this challenge was to create awareness about ALS and the donations therein where intended for the purpose of helping those with ALS as well as for funding research on this degenerative disease.
For starters, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS is a neurological disorder that is degenerative in nature and affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord leading to loss of muscle control. It is fatal and, till date, does not have an effective therapy or cure.
Did you know that this disease is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the US? Lou Gehrig was a renowned baseball player who lost his life to this degenerative disease at the young age of 37, two years after he was diagnosed with this illness. His popularity was one reason the illness gained more attention; and therefore, the alternate name.
Although the disease has not gained popularity and awareness like other neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, or Parkinson’s; it is not a rare occurrence. In the US alone, around 5000 people are diagnosed with ALS every year. And there are over 30,000 people being afflicted with the disease at any given point of time.
This is not a newly-discovered disease. The first instance of its awareness was described in 1869. But it has taken close to two centuries for it to gain wider attention. And probably, it would take much longer to actually gain a better understanding of the disease itself! And even longer before a cure is found!!
Most of the people afflicted with this disease are in the age group of 40 to 70 years. But there have also been instances of younger adults and elderly people becoming prey to this degenerative disorder. Although very rare, it has also been diagnosed in children!
ALS is a disabling disease as it affects muscle control. However, studies have shown that it generally affects motor neurons in the limbs, both legs and arms; face, throat, tongue, and diaphragm. Automatic movements such as heart beat, intestinal movements, and eye movements are generally unaffected.
The exact reason for the onset of ALS is yet to be discovered. However, its occurrences have been classified into Familial and Sporadic. In the former, there is a 5-10 percent chance of the disease where there is clear family history of ALS. However, there have also been sporadic occurrences of the disease where there is no history of ALS in the family.
Although much progress has not been made with regards to ALS, scientists believe that complex interactions between environmental factors and genetic factors could lead to sporadic ALS. However, till date, there is nothing to prove that the disease is the result of exposure to any specific toxin, deficiency in nutrition, or occupational exposure.
The occurrence of ALS is more prevalent among men than in women!
ALS does not seem to affect a person’s decision-making capacity and does not result in dementia, depression, or other behavior-related problems. Muscle stiffness, muscle wasting, slurred speech, difficulty in swallowing, and muscle cramps or twitches are some common symptoms. However, these are common even in healthy adults or are common symptoms for other diseases. Therefore, diagnosis is not easy.
This disabling illness is also fatal! The average life expectancy, from the beginning of symptoms, is approximately 3 years. Less than 25 percent of patients live for 5 years and only 10 percent or lesser will survive up to 10 years or more!