Experts revealed that there is a positive link between military service and developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a chronic, progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease, marked by gradual degeneration of the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement.
More research needs to be done regarding the relationship between military service and this rare disease because only a few studies were submitted in a report from the US Institute of Medicine.
A six-member United States Institute of Medicine panel said “the evidence of a link between military service and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) later in life is sparse, but a review of five prior studies suggests it does exist.”
Dr. Richard T Johnson, the chairman of the committee that published this report, said, “The connection is pretty strong statistical, the risk [of developing ALS] is small. It's only a 50% increase in risk”.
A total of five studies were done and three of them were on Veterans from the Gulf War, suggesting that there chance of developing ALS is two times higher than the general population and also from veterans who weren't in the 1990-1991 war.
Another study suggested that the threat of developing the disease had a 1.5 fold increase before the Gulf War. However, a fifth study voided the findings given by the previous studies.
Johnson said that although the connection is statistically significant, the study findings need to be replicated. “The question is, if it's true, then why does military service increase your risk?”
The researchers say that the study needs to be further elaborated and causes need to be ascertained. Some suggest proximity to toxic chemicals as a cause, while others blame traumatic events, exhaustive physical activity or any other experience which soldiers encounter.
Lucie Bruijn, the science director of the ALS Association said, “This was important to review and was not unexpected to me in terms of findings. Although there is limited evidence, it is very suggestive, and I think that the recommendations for further studies are very important.”
At present, veterans of the Gulf War get disability compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if they develop ALS, but other veterans do not.
“Congress needs to continue to fund research in this area,” said Steve Gibson, the ALS Association's vice president for government relations. “We think that because of this connection, it is imperative that we protect our men and women. Because right now, if you fight for our country, you are at higher risk of developing ALS, and we need to find out the reasons why.”
The disorder, which is marked by the death of the motor neurons, withers away the whole body. The disease involves the upper motor neurons as well as the lower motor neurons, which degenerate or die, quitting sending messages to muscles. As a result of the degeneration of neurons, the brain loses its ability to control voluntary movements.
Researchers suggest that up to 10% cases of ALS appear to be inherited and more than 90% of the cases appear to occur randomly, with no identifiable cause and no obvious risk factors.
One possible cause of ALS is excess glutamate, one of the many chemicals (neurotransmitters) that neurons use to send signals to one another.
Although the disease can occur at a younger age, it has been found that most people who develop ALS are between the ages of 40 and 70. It occurs throughout the world with no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic boundaries, affecting as many as 20,000 Americans, with 5,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It is estimated that ALS is responsible for one out of every 100,000 deaths in people over age 20.