Baseball great Lou Gehrig in 1939 brought worldwide attention to ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease of the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It ended the career of one of the most beloved baseball players of all time, and ALS is still called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS was first found in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. A-myo-trophic comes from the Greek language and means “no muscle nourishment.” When a muscle has no nourishment, it “atrophies” or wastes away. “Lateral” identifies the areas in a person’s spinal cord where nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located. As this area degenerates, it leads to scarring or hardening (“sclerosis”).
Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. Patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed.
ALS usually strikes people between 40 and 70, and it is estimated there are at least 16,000 Americans who have the disease at any given time. For unknown reasons, military veterans are approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as the general public. Notable individuals who had ALS include Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Senator Jacob Javits, actor David Niven, musician Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), entertainer Dennis Day, former vice president of the United States Henry A. Wallace and U.S. Army General Maxwell Taylor.