The risk of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is worth taking seriously. This disease can prove fatal within a very short period of time, as little as three to five years from when symptoms first manifest. Treatment for ALS is highly specialized and difficult, and many details of how it is contracted are still unknown.
Did you know that ALS rates are significantly higher among veterans than the civilian population? Yet another reason why ALS demands further research and specialized response from agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. As with so many things about this disease, the exact nature of the link between military service and incidence rates isn’t fully understood yet.
In 2013, the ALS Association gave a timeline of research into the connection between veterans and rates of ALS. After the VA began tracking cases of ALS in veterans in 2003, the agency logged more than 2,100 incidences of the disease by 2007. Early studies addressing the factors that link ALS and veterans focused on the Gulf War, but follow-up studies discovered that the increased incidence rates are actually noticeable among all groups of veterans.
The VA announced a presumption of service connection for ALS in 2008, meaning the government acknowledges some link between serving in the military and an increased rate of the disease. While the exact cause of ALS is still unknown, the VA designation is a major step. Now, veterans living with ALS, as well as surviving family members of those who have died from it, can receive service-connected health benefits to help with care.
The federal announcement of the acknowledged connection between ALS and military service named numerous studies over the years that have helped establish the link. According to the ALS Association, one Harvard University study tracked service all the way back to 1910 and concluded the risk to veterans versus civilians: Veterans are almost 60 percent more likely to contract ALS than non-service-members.
The ALS Association added it is now working in tandem with the VA to ensure more research is done regarding the causes, risk factors and new treatment options. Thus far, the ongoing studies have put scientists on the path to four potential treatments for ALS. There have been 44 studies supported by the ALS Association’s connection to the VA.
Because of the serious nature of ALS, detecting this disease early is extremely important. The VA lists several early warning symptoms, including difficulty swallowing, cramps, stiff muscles, weak muscles in an arm or a leg or slurred speech. In most cases, the progression of the disease leads to degrading motor control. Anyone who experiences the early symptoms of ALS should undergo testing to determine if the disease is present. There isn’t a single test for ALS, and doctors typically test for other possible diseases to rule them out.
The VA noted that, as with other service-connected diseases, ALS care is available to people who have had 90-plus continuous days of military service. Though the cure for ALS hasn’t yet been discovered yet, the VA can provide help in the form of vital treatments and medications.