Local doctor studies link between veterans and ALS

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, affects two in every 100,000 people. The neurological disease attacks voluntary muscle movement that can lead to paralysis and eventually death. Unfortunately, our former service men and women are twice as likely to develop ALS compared to those who have not served in the military.

ALS is a very complicated disease and{} researchers haven't pinpointed exactly what causes it, or why our veterans are twice as likely to get it.Doctor Peter King is hopeful the research he does at UAB and Birmingham VA Medical Center will yield results in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But he's up against the clock "The survival time is three to five years once the diagnosis is made," said King.

ALS is a degeneration of nerve cells that control muscles. Eventually, the disease attacks muscles related to breathing and swallowing, and can cause death. Modern medicine can slow the process but not stop it altogether. And the diagnosis can be difficult. "There is no good marker for the disease in the early stages. So sometimes the diagnosis is delayed by a least a year to a year and half and patients go through multiple tests without any diagnosis."

Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics is that veterans develop the disease at twice the rate of those who never served.

Doctor King says there are many factors to consider. One is physical activity. "It's a very active group. Physically active. And we know there are studies that have linked extreme physical activity to ALS."

Another risk factor could be chemical exposure. "Both toxic exposures from pesticides or poisons related to the war that veterans can get exposed to the battle field," he said.

Then there could be infectious agents."It's very closed quarters. They live amongst themselves and may be more susceptible to."

The risk factors are many."As to which one is the actual cause, we don't know."

Initial studies concluded gulf war veterans were at a greater risk. That has since changed. "Upon looking at the data more carefully realized it was a risk for all the wars."

Doctor King says there are drugs on the market that slow down the process, as well as experimental research for other treatments. However, nothing yet to address the cause. But King is confident."I am very confident that we will find a cause for this disease within the next five to ten years."

Doctor King started an ALS clinic last fall Birmingham VA Medical Center solely for the purpose of serving local veterans with ALS.{}

He is also hosting one of UAB's neuroscience cafes at the Hoover Library on March 17 at 6:30pm.