By: Tirthna Badhiwala
Videos of friends, family and celebrities completing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge have been drenching people’s social media feeds over the past couple of months. However, right before this flood of support for ALS research, researchers in Europe were interested in whether the cause of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is vigorous physical activity.
It sounded like they were onto something, considering many athletes, including 1930s Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig, were diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease at ages significantly younger than the typical onset age.
However, a search for evidence supporting that physical activity is a risk factor only found a weak correlation between playing contact sports and ALS susceptibility, and the studies themselves had technical problems. Other European researchers took a different approach—simply asking over 1,500 total ALS patients and people not diagnosed with the disease about their lives, and then comparing interview answers between the two groups. The interviewers asked the volunteers about everything from their everyday physical activities to their history of injuries.
The results, which were published in May, restored confidence that physical activity does more good than harm. In fact, the study actually suggested that rather than increasing risk for ALS, exercising may offer some protection against the disease. An extensive data collection study published in July supported this claim, as well. Gym goers and avid runners may breathe a sigh of relief!
However, one particular question from the conducted interviews did highlight another possible cause of early onset ALS. It turns out that both men and women who have a history of multiple serious head injuries, including concussions, are much more likely to develop ALS. This may explain Lou Gehrig’s case, considering he had four major concussions during his baseball career.
While it can be helpful to examine correlation between activities and disease risk, though, scientists stress that correlation does not imply causation, and the true cause of ALS has not necessarily been found. Hopefully, with newfound funding from those who opt to donate when nominated for the Ice Bucket Challenge, research can be advanced beyond associational studies.