Lou Gehrig may not have had “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
The New York Times is reporting on a peer-reviewed paper in Journal Neuropathy suggesting that baseball legend Lou Gehrig may not have suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at all, but from a fatal disease caused by concussion-like trauma that erodes the central nervous system, producing similar symptoms.
When Lou Gehrig died in 1941, ALS was commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
The Times points out that the paper does not specifically mention Gehrig, but “its authors in interviews acknowledged the clear implication: Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
The New York Yankee was diagnosed with ALS in 1939 after months of mysterious physical symptoms and a marked decline in athletic skills. The disease was virtually unknown among the general public and at the time was also referred to as infantile paralysis.
With his condition deteriorating rapidly, Gehrig had no choice but to leave the game he so loved. Facing his adoring fans, he gave an emotional farewell speech in which he called himself, “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” words that would capture the hearts of generations yet unborn.
Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech
Most ALS patients are not autopsied, but researchers looking at brain damage in deceased ALS patients found that two football players and one boxer who had been diagnosed with ALS actually had a different fatal disease caused by brain trauma that produces similar symptoms.
At present, researchers are studying similar symptoms in athletes and military veterans, who are being diagnosed with ALS at higher than average rates.
Lou Gehrig had a history of concussions on the baseball field and as a football halfback in high school. He also had a history of playing through injuries, a habit that no doubt contributed to his popularity and hero status. There are at least four documented incidents of Gehrig being knocked unconscious and many other hits to the head.
None of this takes away from the greatness that defined Lou Gehrig, nor does it erase the memory how one man faced his fans and called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” even after such a devastating diagnosis.
It does offer new insight into traumatic brain injury and ALS, offering hope for better diagnosis and treatment in the future.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease – Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Progressive degeneration of motor neurons lead to their death, resulting in the inability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement. Patients in late stages of the disease may be totally paralyzed.
From the ALS Association:
- The onset of ALS is insidious with muscle weakness or stiffness as early symptoms. Progression of weakness, wasting and paralysis of the muscles of the limbs and trunk as well as those that control vital functions such as speech, swallowing and later breathing generally follows.
- ALS is not contagious.
- Approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year. The incidence of ALS is two per 100,000 people, and it is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any given time.
- Although the life expectancy of an ALS patient averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis, this disease is variable and many people live with quality for five years and more. More than half of all patients live more than three years after diagnosis. There are people in whom ALS has stopped progressing and a small number of people in whom the symptoms of ALS reversed.
- ALS occurs throughout the world with no racial, ethnic or socioeconomic boundaries.
- ALS can strike anyone.
- The cause is unknown and there is currently no cure.
Photo: Harris & Ewing Collection at the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons