What is ALS?
ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and Charcot disease, is a specific disorder that involves the death of neurons. In the United Kingdom the term motor neurone disease (MND) is commonly used, while others use that term for a group of five conditions of which ALS is the most common. ALS is characterized by stiff muscles, muscle twitching, and gradually worsening weakness due to muscle wasting. This results in difficulty speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing.
The cause is not known in 90% to 95% of cases. About 5–10% of cases are inherited from a person’s parents. About half of these genetic cases are due to one of two specific genes. It results in the death of the neurons that control voluntary muscles. The diagnosis is based on a person’s signs and symptoms with testing done to rule out other potential causes.
There is no cure for ALS. A medication called riluzole may extend life expectancy by about two to three months. Non-invasive ventilation may result in both improved quality and length of life. The disease usually starts around the age of 60 and in inherited cases around the age of 50. The average survival from onset to death is three to five years. About 10% survive longer than 10 years. Most die from respiratory failure. In much of the world, rates of ALS are unknown. In Europe and the United States, the disease affects about 2 people per 100,000 per year.
Descriptions of the disease date back to at least 1824 by Charles Bell. In 1869, the connection between the symptoms and the underlying neurological problems were first described by Jean-Martin Charcot, who in 1874 began using the term amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It became well known in the United States when it affected the famous baseball player Lou Gehrig, and in the 20th century when Stephen Hawking gained fame for his scientific achievements. In 2014 videos of the ice bucket challenge went viral on the internet and increased public awareness.