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A New Drug For A.L.S

A New Drug for A.L.S., but the Diagnosis Remains Dire

A neighbor of mine was recently told he has a devastating neurological disorder that is usually fatal within a few years of diagnosis. Though a new drug was recently approved for the illness, treatments may only slow progression of the disease for a time or extend life for maybe two or three months.

He is a man of about 60 I’ve long considered the quintessential Mr. Fix-it, able to repair everything from bicycles to bathtubs. Now he is facing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — a disease that no one yet knows how to fix.

I can only imagine what he is going through because he does not want to talk about it. However, many others similarly afflicted have openly addressed the challenges they faced, though it is usually up to friends and family to express them and advocate for more and better research and public understanding.

A.L.S. attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movements, like chewing, walking, breathing, swallowing and talking. It is invariably progressive. Lacking nervous system stimulation, the muscles soon begin to weaken, twitch and waste away until individuals can no longer speak, eat, move or even breathe on their own.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that between 14,000 and 15,000 Americans have A.L.S., which makes it sound like a rare disease, but only because life expectancy is so short. A.L.S. occurs throughout the world, and it is probably far more common than generally thought.

Over the course of a lifetime, one person in about 400 is likely to develop it, a risk not unlike that of multiple sclerosis. But with the rare exception of an outlier like the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking, who has had A.L.S. for more than 50 years, it usually kills so quickly that many people do not know anyone living with this disease. Only one person in 10 with A.L.S. is likely to live for a decade or longer.

The disease is most commonly diagnosed in middle age, among people in their 50s or 60s, though it sometimes afflicts young adults. Dr. Hawking was found to have it at age 21.

Early symptoms can be very subtle and thus are often overlooked or attributed to a minor problem like lack of sleep, undue stress, overwork or poor diet. However, the underlying damage can start long before the symptoms are noticed. Given the redundancy built into the brain, about a third of motor neurons are destroyed before signs of muscle loss become apparent.

Initial symptoms depend on which group of motor neurons are affected first. In about…

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