Veterans found to have 60% more risk of ALS

But scientists unable to explain cause

April 29, 2004|By Jamie Talan | Jamie Talan,NEWSDAY

Harvard scientists have discovered that military veterans who served as far back as World War I had a 60 percent increased risk of dying from the devastating motor neuron disease ALS, although the research does not explain why.

Hints that the disease was somehow linked to young men and women who served in the first Persian Gulf War led scientists to look at the possibility that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, is somehow linked to wartime environments.

Patients with ALS lose their ability to move. They usually die within five years.

"We really need to start paying attention to environmental factors. Right now, it's totally unknown," said Dr. Hiroshi Mitsumoto, director of the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Center at Columbia University in Manhattan.

Mitsumoto was part of the scientific team that reported the increased risk in gulf war vets.

In this latest study, reported yesterday during the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in San Francisco, Marc Weisskopf, a research associate at Harvard School of Public Health, found that men who served in the U.S. military, regardless of the years spent in service, were 60 percent more likely to develop ALS than men who were not in the military.

Weisskopf and his colleagues analyzed information collected during an American Cancer Society prevention study, which began in 1982 and enrolled a million people.

They were interested in the men with military service records. Of the 408,000 men, two-thirds had said that they had been in the military and listed the exact years of service.

The investigators used their years of service and the arm of the military in which they served to separate the men into specific war years. The study did not address whether the men had been deployed into combat situations.

In all, there were 280 men who died of ALS and 217 of these men had been in the service, Weisskopf said.

"The increase is real, no matter what war they served in," said the scientist. "More research is needed to confirm this risk, and figure out the causes."

Even with the increased risk, however, the disease is still rare for veterans and nonveterans alike.

Dr. Susan Mather, environmental hazards chief at the Department of Veterans Affairs, called the discovery intriguing but added, "This study to me only raises more questions than it answers."

Mather said the department will sponsor more studies. New research will try to confirm whether veterans truly are more likely to get ALS and if so, why.

The scientists in the study also had information on lifestyle factors, including the routine use of vitamin supplements. They found that vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects against certain kinds of cell death, seemed to lower the risk slightly for these military men and the others in the study.

The government is now tracking ALS cases via registry through the Veterans Administration.

ALS, which attacks nerves that control muscles, affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States, and about 5,000 new cases are diagnosed annually. One of its most famous victims was baseball great Lou Gehrig, who died of it in 1941 at age 37.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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