Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Stephen Hawking

As the world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking breathes his last breath, it is time for us to delve into the lesser known disease that he suffered throughout his life.

Hawking is one man who needs no introduction really. Even ones who know nothing of science knew that he was a specially-abled scientist who had been wheelchair ridden for years and was one of the top names in the world of science. However, not many people know what disease he had been suffering from. He had lived for the majority of his life with ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. This is basically a progressive neurodegenerative disease. This means that it is a disease of nerves and gets worse with each passing day of the patient’s life. It starts by affecting the nerve cells in the spinal cord and the brain. Incidentally, these are the organs that make your muscles work.

What happens with ALS?

Normally, when someone has ALS, as Professor Hawking did, the nerve cells start to lose their capacity to start or control the movement of muscles. This means that slowly the body of the patient becomes paralyzed and then she or he passes away. People who suffer from this disease are not able to control the movement of their muscles. This means that they are unable to even perform basic functions such as eating, walking, speaking, etc. This ends with losing the ability to breathe.

Lou Gehrig’s disease

In fact, this disease is also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It got this name from Lou Gehrig, a former well-known baseball player. He had to retire in 1939 after he started to suffer from it. Other well-known people who have suffered from ALS are David Niven, an actor, Charles Mingus, a jazz musician, and George Yardley, an NBA (National Basketball Association) Hall of Famer.

Some basic facts

Not a lot is known about why this disease happens and as of now, it does not have any cure either. Men have been seen to suffer more commonly from it compared to women.

The remarkable thing about Hawking

Apart from his contributions to the world of knowledge, a spectacular thing about Hawking is that he was able to live in excess of 50 years with ALS. This is really long for a patient suffering from it. He was absolutely paralyzed by the disease. As such he had to depend completely on others for all his activities such as bathing, mobility, dressing, speech, and eating to name a few. He was also dependent on them for carrying out his research. He was only able to move a few fingers in one of his hands.

What has he himself said?

In his own website, Hawking has stated that he always tried to lead as normal a life as possible. Professor Hawking also revealed that he tried not to think too much of his condition and even regret the things that he was unable to do because of it. He, in fact, revealed that there were not many things that ALS could stop him from doing. This shows his exemplary mental strength and will.

What did he feel?

On a few occasions, he expressed how lucky he felt that in his case ALS was progressing at a slower rate. It also showed that people should never lose hope, an important life lesson for so many people around the world.

The Theory of Everything

It was in 2014 that a biopic – The Theory of Everything – was made on Hawking that detailed his life including his fight with ALS. It starred the noted actor Eddie Redmayne in the titular role.

Figures on ALS

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that around 20,000 to 30,000 individuals are suffering from this disease in the United States of America (USA). Each year around 5000 new cases are diagnosed. People normally find out that they are suffering from it when they are between 55 to 75 years old. On an average, people live around 2 to 5 years with this disease. The period is estimated with respect to the time when these symptoms show for the first time. There are normally two kinds of ALS – sporadic and familial. The sporadic variety happens to be the commoner of the two. In case of the latter, it happens to be inherited. There is a 50 percent chance that children of people suffering from ALS would inherit it as well. In case someone is suffering from familial ALS she or he would not live for more than a year or two after the first symptoms show themselves.

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