June is ALS Awareness Month. According to the ALS Society of Canada, more than 200,000 people around the world are living with ALS, with an estimated 3,000 Canadians currently living with ALS.
Unfortunately, each year approximately 1,000 Canadians die from ALS - a similar number of Canadians are diagnosed with ALS each year.
What is ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the famous baseball player was diagnosed with ALS in 1939.
ALS is a debilitating and often fatal disease. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people worldwide have ALS, and an estimated 3,000 Canadians are currently living with ALS. Symptoms of ALS can include muscle weakness, twitching, difficulty speaking, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty breathing. As the disease progresses, it leads to paralysis and eventually death.
How ALS works in the body
According to the ALS Society of Canada, our brain is connected to our muscles through millions of specialized nerve cells called motor neurons, which serve as our bodies’ internal wiring and enable us to move our bodies as we choose. Motor neurons work in pairs: an upper motor neuron in the brain extends to the brainstem at the back of the neck or the spinal cord, and a lower motor neuron extends from the brainstem or spinal cord to the muscle. The brain sends a signal along these motor neurons, telling a muscle to contract. This signal is an electrical impulse created by chemicals in our neurons.
In ALS, motor neurons gradually break down and die. This means the brain can no longer communicate with the body's muscles. As a result, the muscles become weak and eventually, someone living with ALS will be unable to move them.
Types of ALS
The most common form of ALS is sporadic ALS, meaning the disease can affect anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or age—although it most often affects people between the ages of 40 and 60.
The other type of ALS is familial ALS, which can be passed from a parent to his or her child. Approximately 5 to 10% of ALS cases are familial.
Regardless of whether someone has sporadic or familial ALS, 30% of all people with the disease have a form called Bulbar ALS. In the early stages of Bulbar ALS, the motor neurons in the corticobulbar area of the brainstem are the first to be affected. This means that the head, face and neck muscles become paralyzed before muscles in other parts of the body. ALS is often confused with Multiple Sclerosis and Muscular Dystrophy.
Causes of ALS
There is no known cause for ALS and no known cure. No one thing causes ALS. Instead, ALS is recognized as having multiple interacting causes, likely based on changes in people’s genes and possibly the contribution of environmental factors. Several genes have been identified as playing a role in the development of ALS. Through research, we are learning more about ALS and the multiple factors that may trigger its development. However, treatments are available to help slow the disease's progression and ease the associated symptoms. Physical, occupational, and speech therapies are often recommended to help ALS patients maintain their independence. Medications are also available to help reduce muscle pain and spasticity and to improve breathing.
Research into the causes and treatments of ALS is ongoing. Scientists are working to understand the disease's underlying mechanisms better and develop new treatments. Recently, clinical trials have been conducted on a drug that may help slow the progression of the disease.
ALS is a devastating disease, and those diagnosed with it often face a difficult journey. However, with the proper support and treatment, people living with ALS can still lead full and meaningful lives.
For more information about ALS, visit the ALS Association's website. You can also consider donating to a charity that supports research into ALS and provides support for those living with the disease.
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