Often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease (in reference to its most famous victim), Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord—affecting our ability to initiate and control muscle movement. While researchers are working on a cure, it’s important to know your risk factors and keep an eye out for symptoms now. Here’s a quick overview of risk factors, common symptoms and how you may be able to calculate and reduce your risk.
ALS Risk factors
Since its discovery in 1869, scientists have been investigating both genetic and environmental risk factors for ALS. The disease generally develops between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis. We know that men are 20% more likely than women to contract the disease, that 5–10% of cases are hereditary, and that military veterans are twice as likely to be affected. Exactly why military service might trigger the development of ALS is not known, but doctors think it could be related to exposure to certain metals or chemicals, traumatic injuries, viral infections or intense exertion. Other environmental factors that can increase a person’s risk include smoking and lead exposure.
ALS symptoms can vary dramatically and manifest differently from person to person—so they are tragically often overlooked. One person might have trouble lifting an object; another might slur their words a bit. But the hallmark “first sign” of the disease is muscle weakness, which occurs in about 60% of patients. Early symptoms can include random tripping, dropping things, abnormal fatigue of the arms and/or legs, slurred speech, muscle cramps and uncontrolled twitches.
The extremities are affected first, which can make simple daily activities like buttoning clothes a major challenge. Another symptom that is often overlooked, because it seems unrelated: uncontrollable periods of laughing or crying. As the disease progresses, paralysis can spread inward from the extremities to the trunk—ultimately affecting speech, chewing, swallowing and breathing. If you or somebody you care about exhibits one or more of these potential early symptoms, it’s best to seek medical attention right away.
There is not a cure or treatment that helps reverse ALS, but there are significant devices and therapies that can manage the symptoms, help people maintain some independence and prolong survival. Learn more about the research being done at ALS Therapy Development Institute.
ALS heroes: omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids
In a recent study published in JAMA Neurology, researchers from Harvard’s School of Public Health analyzed the diets of more than a million total subjects across five study groups over many years. Among the group of nearly 1,000 ALS cases, the study found that those who ate a diet rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and carotenoids had a reduced risk for contracting the disease—leading researchers to believe that consumption of these types of foods may help to delay or possibly even prevent ALS.
Carotenoids are the antioxidant compounds that give certain fruits and vegetables their bright red, yellow, orange and green colors. Beta-carotene, found in carrots, yams and squash, is a carotenoid, as is the lycopene that colors tomatoes. Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale are not only rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, but also high in fiber and—unlike other PUFA sources like walnuts, flax seeds and salmon—low in fat. Both carotenoids and PUFAs can help control inflammation and oxidative stress, two bodily processes known to contribute to risk factors for ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Carotenoid- and PUFA-rich veggies have a variety of other health benefits, too. Carotenoids are known to support eye health and reduce the risk of certain eye diseases. Eating a diet rich in carotenoids has been linked to reduced risk of certain cancers as well. PUFAs are known to support heart health, but here’s a benefit that might not have been on your radar: healthy skin! In addition to being among the heartier vegetables, PUFA-rich vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals and nutrients that help keep your skin in tip-top shape. For best results, enjoy these raw or lightly steamed, as overcooking can release key nutrients.