Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Author: Branden Chen
Editor: Michael Zhu
Artist: Serena Yung
Aging is inevitable, and all living organisms experience it. However, with the onset of age comes the onset of various diseases that are associated with aging, like Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia. Many of these diseases can be characterized under one term: neurodegenerative diseases. Neurodegenerative diseases, as the word suggests, involve the
progressive degeneration or death of nerve cells. One particular neurodegenerative disease is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. ALS affects the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, causing a loss of muscle control (atrophy).
Although ALS is quite rare (diagnosed in approximately 5,000 patients each year), the life expectancy is typically alarmingly short, ranging from only two to five years.
Motor neurons are key to the function of our human bodies each day. They carry messages from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout our
bodies. Every voluntary movement we make can be traced back to our motor neurons. Typing on a computer, exercising, and brushing your teeth in the morning all rely on the flow of messages from the brain to the motor neurons. However, patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis experience a slow degeneration of motor neurons. The eventual death of many motor neurons results in a decrease in the brain’s ability to relay signals to the motor neurons, decreasing control of muscle movement. Therefore, ALS prohibits the ability to speak, swallow, walk, or even breathe at times.
But how does one get ALS? To answer this question, we look at the two different types of ALS: familial and sporadic. Sporadic ALS accounts for a large majority of ALS cases (90-95%), and it can affect anyone, regardless of genetic or other influences. On the other hand, familial ALS is inherited, accounting for only 5-10% of ALS cases.
There are various risk factors for ALS as well, both physiological and environmental. The risk of ALS increases with age, with the condition being the most common for people between the ages of 40 and 65. Additionally, more men than women tend to be affected by ALS under the age of 65. Environmental factors can also influence the diagnosis of ALS. Studies have shown that smoking, increased exposure to environmental toxins like lead, and military service are all linked to an increased risk of ALS.
It is crucial to understand that there is no cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. With a disease as fatal and deadly, it is important to seek cures and continue medical research that expands upon our knowledge of ALS, paving the way in the future for the development of therapeutics that target the biological mechanisms of ALS.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) - Symptoms and causes. (2019). Mayo Clinic;
What is ALS? (2021). The ALS Association.