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.

The data revealed that two-thirds of the ALS patients had been slim all their lives, in contrast to only about half of the non-ALS group. Also, 38 percent of those with ALS had been varsity athletes, while only 26 percent of the non-ALS people were, the researchers report in the Sept. 10 Neurology.

Rowland admits there is no clear explanation for the findings. He speculates that athletes might incur nerve damage that somehow leads to ALS over time.

But past studies of trauma and ALS have shown no link between the two.

Could people who inherit athletic ability also be somehow genetically prone to the disease? The findings warrant further investigation into this question, Rowland says. Meanwhile, he emphasizes, “people shouldn’t avoid doing exercise,” even those with ALS.


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