Few neural diseases are worse than amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The baseball player ALS was named after in the mid-20th century made this brain condition famous.
According to the ALS association, the disease targets brain and spinal cord nerve cells that control a person’s motor movements. The gradual deterioration ultimately results in the death of these cells, which, in turn, can lead to full-blown paralysis for the person afflicted with the disease. Once communication is lost between the muscles in the body and the central nervous system, they naturally become lifeless.
What is ALS?
The central nervous system (CNS) controls every voluntary movement we do, whether that is walking, speaking, or moving our fingers. This is why afflictions like ALS are the most severe. Dead nerve cells do not regenerate. It goes without saying that early detection and diagnosis is critical for maximizing a patient’s quality of life and diminishing the progression of this debilitating brain disease.
There is no cure for ALS. The only treatment currently available is riluzole (sometimes referred to as Rilutek), medication approved by the FDA and proven to slow the rate at which ALS harms nerve cells. The sooner your loved one is prescribed riluzole, the better their chances are of preventing partial or full paralysis.
How Many People have ALS?
While the number of people affected by ALS are not nearly as high as other life-threatening health conditions (studies by the ALS Association report that approximately 30,000 people have the disease at any point in time), its severity cannot be emphasized enough. Fatalities are not uncommon; for every 100,000 deaths, ALS is responsible for two. Research by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine notes that the majority of people who develop ALS are between ages 40 and 70 and is most common in individuals 60 and older. However, the disease does not discriminate on the basis of age as younger people have been afflicted with ALS, as well.
In no way does this data do the effects of the disease justice, however. There are many more people suffering from paralysis every day due to advanced stages of ALS. These people often require the assistance of a full time caregiver in order to accomplish basic, daily needs. The average lifespan of those diagnosed with the disease is 5 years, though individuals who gain access to medication early stand a far greater chance of living longer (10% of patients live longer than 10 years and 5% than 20 respectively) than someone who is diagnosed late.
ALS Symptoms: What to Know
The exact causes of ALS are unknown, and the symptoms vary by person depending on the progression of the disease and the individual’s particular response to its development. Common things to look for include muscle weakness at one more sites (e.g. arms, legs, jaw, etc. — commonly referred to as “limb onset” ALS, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke), as well as an increased difficulty speaking. Shortness of breath and breathing problems are pronounced in ALS’ advanced forms, meaning the motor neurons that control these voluntary and involuntary movements are in jeopardy.
If your loved one has been diagnosed with ALS, his or her doctor will prescribe medication to slow it down. They will also tell you what you can do to increase their quality of life and be honest about their longevity. As recommended by Will Hubben, the creator of The ALS Research Digest and an ALS patient himself, learning as much as possible about the disease and dropping negative habits (such as smoking and poor diet) in favor of more positive ones (such as yoga, meditation, and visualization techniques), can help a person with ALS stay positive and face their diagnosis.
Regardless of the prognosis, a positive mindset and outlook is very important for both you and your loved one with ALS.
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For more information, please review our Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Resources.