ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that takes away a person’s ability to move, talk, swallow and eventually breathe. ALS falls into the class of motor neuron diseases and is the disease from which baseball hall of fame member Lou Gehrig died. A person with ALS can try to initiate voluntary muscle movement, and the muscles have the ability to move and respond. However the nerve impulse from the brain directing the muscle what to do never reaches its destination and the muscle fails to function. The nerve cells die and the brain’s commands no longer follow their pathways.
There is no cure for ALS and the disease is always fatal. The average time between diagnosis and death is 2 to 5 years but every patient’s journey is different. Many patients with ALS live for over a decade. The famous physicist Steven Hawking lived for over 50 years following his ALS diagnosis. The average age at diagnosis is 55 but there are cases of diagnosis in every decade of life from the 20’s through the 80’s. It is 20% more common in males than females and although considered a rare disease, there are about 5,000 people diagnosed every year with ALS in the United States. Several medications are approved that slow the disease progression to a limited extent and there is exciting research to better understand ALS and to look for a cure.