ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) is more common among older adults, but people in their 20s and 30s can also develop this debilitating condition.

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ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a rare neurological disorder affecting approximately 30,000 people in the U.S. It can run in families, but most cases have no family connection.

ALS affects the brain cells (neurons) that control your muscles. As ALS progresses, people lose voluntary control of their muscles and various bodily functions, including standing, chewing food, and speaking clearly.

Here’s more in-depth information about ALS.

Prevalence refers to the proportion of a population that has a specific characteristic. It’s calculated by dividing the number of people with that characteristic by the total number of people in the sample size.

According to a 2023 report, the prevalence of ALS in the United States is about 9.1 cases per 100,000 people.

What is incidence?

Unlike prevalence, which describes the percentage of people who have a particular disorder or characteristic, incidence refers to the rate of new cases (or events) for a population over a given time period. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, ALS develops in 1.5 to 3 people per 100,000 in the United States and Europe each year.

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The ALS Association suggests that men are about 20% more likely than women to develop ALS, though as people get older, the sex differences tend to even out.

The ALS Association reports that ALS is more common among non-Hispanic individuals, with white adults about twice as likely as Black adults to develop ALS.

Some of the early symptoms of ALS include:

  • chewing and swallowing difficulties
  • muscle cramps
  • muscle twitching, particularly in the limbs
  • muscle weakness
  • slurred speech
  • stiff muscles

As the disease progresses, people become unable to walk and stand on their own, or use their arms and hands efficiently. Swallowing and speaking become more difficult. Breathing also becomes so problematic that many people with ALS require a ventilator to survive.

In most cases, it’s not clear why a person develops ALS. It occurs when motor neurons weaken and die, making them unable to send signals necessary to control muscle movement. Over time, muscles twitch uncontrollably and start to waste away (atrophy).

About 5–10% of people with ALS have “familial ALS,” which means they inherited gene mutations that cause the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The average life expectancy of someone diagnosed with ALS is about 2–5 years, according to the ALS Association.

Some people with the disorder may live 10 years or longer, though once symptoms appear, they tend to progress quickly, leading to hospitalization and early mortality.

What are the treatments for ALS?

While there’s currently no cure for ALS, there are some treatments that may slow down the progression of the disease. Among them is the medication riluzole, an expensive treatment that has shown modest success.

Gabapentin may help with pain. Physical and occupational therapy may also help.

Does ALS cause dementia?

Most people with ALS retain their thinking skills and memory, though there is a type of ALS dementia that develops in some people. But anxiety and depression are common complications of ALS, in part because people with the disorder are very much aware that they have the condition and all the physical limitations and challenges that go with it.

Is ALS contagious?

You can’t catch ALS from someone. ALS is a neurological condition and not something that be passed along like a viral or bacterial infection, though some people with the disorder do inherit genes that make them more likely to develop it.

ALS is a rare, but well-known condition. Though there’s considerable ongoing research devoted to treatments and a search for a cure, it remains a challenging disorder for patients and their physicians.