Recently, all over Facebook and other social media, you have probably seen friends and celebrities alike dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads. The goal of the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” is to raise awareness for ALS and generate donations to help further research of the disease. However, there are many unknowns about ALS and most of the general public does not know the real truth about this frightening disease.
What is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
Each year, according to ALSA.org, more than 5,600 people in the United States are diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.  ALS is a fatal motor neuron disease which causes muscle atrophy and loss of control over muscle movement.
The disease is degenerative in nature and causes paralysis and eventual death. ALS is characterized by muscle spasms, muscle stiffness accompanied by weakness and cramping, trouble swallowing, breathing and speaking.
How common is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, reports estimate around 12,000-15,000 people in the United States are currently living with ALS.  Because information about ALS has not been accurately kept, it is hard to know the exact number of people with the disease.
Although Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis was first diagnosed in 1869, it was brought to the attention of the public when famous baseball player Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees was diagnosed with the disease.
Who is at risk for ALS?
There are established risk factors associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis which includes the following:
- Gender: Before the age of 65, men have a slightly higher risk of developing ALS than women.  The gender difference ends after the age of 70-years old.
- Hereditary: Between 5-10% of people with ALS inherit it through a genetic link.  In families with ALS, children acquire a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.
What are other risk factors associated with ALS?
Currently, only a small percentage (5-10%) of ALS cases can be clearly linked to genetics, which leaves a lot of room to speculate other possible causes.  Guam has an extremely high rate of ALS among its population, which has led researchers to believe it is due to the people’s diet of highly poisonous nuts from the indigenous cycad tree. 
Non-genetic risk factors which could contribute to the risk of ALS include tobacco use, nutrition, ethnicity, chemical and radiation exposure, sports and exercise and pollution.
How does ALS progress?
The progression of ALS will be different for each person. It is not uncommon for someone to have the disease for years and to be asymptomatic. ALS affects the neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which will result in muscle cramps and twitches, stiffness and weakness.
When the brain cannot control muscle motions, mobility becomes severely degraded and it causes problems chewing, swallowing, and breathing. As ALS reaches its final stage, a person’s entire body will become totally paralyzed; respiratory failure and death will occur.
How does ALS affect the body and mind?
Because Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis affects the brain and spinal cord, which controls the nerves and movements throughout a person’s whole body, the disease can manifest in both the body and mind. For example, the ALS Association reports a link between ALS and cognitive dysfunction. 
There is a wide range of ALS patients, who reportedly experience no cognitive changes. However, there are others who have moderate difficulties and in some situations, more severe cognitive issues and dementia can present.
Can ALS be cured?
Currently, there is no known cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. While ALS is not curable, it can be treated using Riluzole, which is a drug that slows the progression of the disease but has no lasting effects.
Although the life expectancy for someone with ALS averages about 2-5 years, the disease and its progression will vary and many individuals have lived for much longer than expected.
How can you support ALS awareness?
With ongoing clinical drug trials and research, people with ALS can have an improved quality of life. Social media campaigns and other efforts to raise awareness can help spread the word about the disease and encourage people to continue donating in order to fund future research. You can help support ALS awareness by participating in the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” and spreading the word about the disease to everyone you know.
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