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Know your ALS Risk Factors, Symptoms

By Staci Amend
January 19, 2015

Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease (in reference to its most famous victim), Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord—affecting our ability to initiate and control muscle movement. While researchers are working on a cure, it’s important to know your risk factors and keep an eye out for symptoms NOW. Here’s a quick overview of both.

Risk factors
Since its discovery in 1869, scientists have been investigating both genetic and environmental risk factors for ALS. The disease generally develops between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis. We know that men are 20% more likely than women to contract the disease, that 5–10% of cases are hereditary, and that military veterans (especially those who served in the Gulf War) are twice as likely to be affected. Exactly why military service might trigger the development of ALS is not known, but doctors think it could be related to exposure to certain metals or chemicals, traumatic injuries, viral infections or intense exertion. Other environmental factors that can increase a person’s risk include smoking and lead exposure.

ALS symptoms can vary dramatically and manifest differently from person to person—so they are tragically often overlooked. One person might have trouble lifting an object; another might slur their words a bit. But the hallmark “first sign” of the disease is muscle weakness, which occurs in about 60% of patients. Early symptoms can include random tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and uncontrolled twitches.

The extremities are affected first, which can make simple daily activities like buttoning clothes a major challenge. Another symptom that is often overlooked, because it seems unrelated: uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying. As the disease progresses, paralysis can spread inward from the extremities to the trunk—ultimately affecting speech, chewing, swallowing and breathing. If you or somebody you care about exhibits one or more of these potential early symptoms, it’s best to seek medical attention right away.

The Future
There is not a cure or treatment that helps reverse ALS, but there are significant devices and therapies that can manage the symptoms, help people maintain some independence and prolong survival. Learn more about the research being done at ALS Therapy Development Institute.

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