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What you should know about ALS

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, breaks down the nerves' ability to control muscles.

Jill Kruse, D.O., is a family medicine practitioner with Brookings Health System and an On Call with the Prairie Doc® team member.

She discusses the condition and the public figure who brought the disease to the forefront of research.

Prairie Doc Perspective Week of September 10th, 2023
“ALS — Not Just Lou Gehrig’s Disease”
By Jill Kruse, D.O.

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig said these famous words at Yankee Stadium, “For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break that I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” The bad break he was referring to was the diagnosis of a condition that would become synonymous with him — a neuromuscular condition called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a disease which causes motor nerves in the brain and spinal cord to break down. This reduces the nerves' ability to control muscle function leading the muscle to weaken, twitch, and waste away. As the disease progresses it slowly impairs the person’s ability to walk, talk, swallow, and breathe.

Lou Gehrig was only 36 years old when he was diagnosed at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. However, it is more commonly diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75. He lived less than two years after his diagnosis with ALS. Today the average life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years, but some people with this disease can live much longer. The famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, lived for more than 50 years after he was diagnosed with ALS.

The cause of ALS is still unknown. Almost all cases are considered sporadic, while only five to ten percent are thought to be inherited. One study suggested smoking may increase a person’s risk for developing ALS. Military veterans also have an increased risk of developing ALS compared to civilians. Currently there is no single test that can predict or diagnose ALS. It is based on symptoms and a multitude of tests. While there are treatments and medications that can slow the progression of the disease, there is no cure. But research is still ongoing.

Over eighty years later, the final words of Lou Gehrig’s speech still serve as inspiration. “So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” Major League Baseball holds “Lou Gehrig Day” every year on June 2. That day marks the anniversary of both when he became the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees and the day he passed away in 1941. On this day, Major League Baseball raises funds to help research ALS, to find better treatments and hopefully find a cure. Lou Gehrig’s optimism and tenacity in face of such a life changing diagnosis makes it no wonder most people know ALS as “Lou Gehrig’s disease."

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.