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Are varsity athletes prone to ALS?

One of the saddest moments in sports history came in 1939 when New York Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig took himself out of the lineup after playing 14 years without missing a game. Gehrig was ill and later died of a disease that would bear his name even after it received its formal title, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

In years of specialty practice, neurologist Lewis P. Rowland of Columbia University noticed that, like Gehrig, many ALS patients had been former varsity athletes or, at least, in fit condition.

This oddity led Rowland and his colleagues to collect personal histories of 431 consecutive patients whom Rowland treated between 1992 and 2000. Of these, 65 percent were diagnosed with ALS or a related neurological disease. The other 35 percent had neurological problems unrelated to ALS.

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