ALS and the Military: What is the Connection?

ALS and the Military: What is the Connection?

There seems to be a connection between the highly fatal degenerative disease, ALS, and veterans of the military. Here, we will attempt to uncover that connection. 

What Is ALS?

ALS is a term short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. This is a degenerative progressive disease, meaning that it gets worse as more time passes by. It affects the nerves of a person’s spinal cord and brain This affects a person’s ability to control their muscles. As the muscles start to become weaker over time, it becomes harder for the person to eat, walk, talk, and breathe.

What does ALS have to do with the Military?

Evidence we have today has concluded that those who have served time in the US military have a greater risk of being diagnosed with ALS and passing away as a result of the disease when compared to those who have no history of service in the military. Multiple studies have continually demonstrated this to be factual. Those that serve in the military, regardless of their service branch, and regardless of the war that they served of – or if they served during a time of war at all – are at an increased risk of dying from ALS than those who have not served time in the military.

So, the next natural question to ask is: Why do military veterans have a greater risk of ALS?

ALS in Veterans

Some studies have suggested that service in the military are associated with the development of ALS – even being as much as twice as likely to develop ALS than those who have not had military service. Despite extensive research into this, scientists still have not yet been able to uncover a link between military service and the development of ALS.

According to the ALS Association, a person’s risk of developing the disease is increased, regardless of the branch of the military they served in, whether they served during war or peace, or where they were posted.

There are a lot of theories surrounding why this might be true, although none have been officially confirmed. One theory is that those who serve time in the military are at a greater risk of being exposed to certain pollutants in the environment, including pesticides, lead, and other toxins. Another theory is that the intense physical exertion that those in service are exposed to may be the cause for a heightened risk of developing the condition.

Other things that are thought to increase risk of developing ALS include alcohol consumption and smoking.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis causes infographic

Causes and risk factors associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

ALS and the Military

David Masters is one example of someone who was affected by ALS and also served in the military. He was on a temporary duty assignment. At Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base, it was 2004 when he began to notice that he was developing symptoms and signs of ALS. He had been working out at the gym doing weight training. That is when he noticed that his right arm was not able to properly cooperate. His right arm didn’t want to keep up with the rest of his body.

This happened when Masters was at the age of 28, just about to turn 29. He initially believed that he must have pinched a nerve and that it would heal in time. However, it only continued to become weaker and weaker.

David Masters had been aiming to be a bodybuilder. However, this was the end of that goal. His fingers began to act up next, becoming numb. By 2006, he went to see a doctor, who told him to seek out a neurologist immediately. He was diagnosed with progressive muscular atrophy, which turned into a case of ALS by March 2010.

Unfortunately, this is far from the only story like this in the military. With situations like this, it is clear that something about life in the military is putting our nation’s veterans at risk of ALS. This terrible disease that weakens muscles to the point of paralysis, it ultimately traps the veterans inside of their bodies – aware of what is happening, but unable to move – and even breathe – without assistance. However, while theories have flown around, no one has a concrete answer as to why.

What’s the Connection?

While we still have little answers to why those who have served in the military are at a higher risk of developing ALS, the Mayo Clinic hypothesises that reasons might include exposure to certain chemicals and metals, traumatic injuries, intense exertion, and viral infections. However, the exact trigger still remains unknown.