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Remembering Lou Gehrig and the scourge of ALS in India

American baseball player Lou Gehrig when he was introduced as new player of the New York Yankees.
Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with ALS eighty years ago yesterday. Image credit: Pacific & Atlantic Photos, Inc

Yesterday marked eighty years since American baseball player Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with the disease that would come to bear his name.

Lou Gehrig’s disease became shorthand for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or motor neurone disease. The neurodegenerative condition causes the death of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, resulting in the loss of voluntary movements such as speaking, eating, and moving. The disease eventually results in complete paralysis of the body’s muscles, leading to the death of patients from either respiratory failure or malnutrition because of the loss of ability to consume food and breathe.

Among the most famous people to develop ALS is Stephen Hawking, who died last year after living with the disease since 1963. Hawking was diagnosed at age 21 and given a mere two years to live. He went on to live for 55 years following the diagnosis. This, however, in an anomalous outcome. For many people, the prognosis is much shorter. ALS patients are generally given between three and five years to live once they are diagnosed. Gehrig died aged 37 on June 2, 1941, a little short of two years after his diagnosis.

In India, the disease strikes around a decade earlier than in western nations, where the average age of onset is between 55 and 65. The incidence is calculated at between 1.5 and 2.7 per 100,000 people per year and is more common in males than females, as well as in rural populations.

Among the most widely known faces of ALS currently is Rahul Desikan, an Indian-American neuroscientist diagnosed with the disease in 2017. His research into neurodegenerative diseases has encompassed that very condition. Desikan’s story was profiled in The Washington Post, as he continues to publish research and work towards finding treatments for neurodegenerative conditions like ALS.

There are no known cures for ALS at present, with only one medication approved to extend the lives of those with the disease. Some are placing hope on stem cell research as a possible avenue towards finding a cure for the disease. However, until then, it is important to remember those living with the disease, both in India and worldwide, as it takes a considerable toll on quality of life and to ensure momentum is maintained towards finding treatments.

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