HealthWatch: Higher Rates of ALS in Veterans

Health Watch

MIAMI, Fla. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Research shows that U.S. military veterans are twice as likely to suffer from ALS as the general public. ALS is a progressive disease, causing muscle weakness or atrophy. What is causing this alarming connection and what is being done to help those who served our country?

John Hartwell never imagined years after serving his country he might wind up like this.

“I was in the Air Force from September 1971 to September 1975,” Hartwell said.

It started with hand cramps in 2015 and then twitching in his arms. John was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. Doctor Ashok Verma, neurologist and medical director of the ALS Program at Miami V.A. Medical Center, at the Miami VA says the incidence of ALS in war veterans is double that of the general public.

“When people looked into ALS who have served in the Persian Gulf War it was approximately twice as common to the general population,” Dr. Verma said.

That also applied to those who served in World War Two, the Korean War and Vietnam. But what’s the cause?

Verma told Ivanhoe, “It may be environmental toxicants, for example exposure to oil wells, burning fumes.”

Hartwell isn’t sure if there’s a link between his service and ALS. But since losing the use of his arms he is learning to adapt.

“I am great with a mouse with my toes; actually it’s really easy,” Hartwell described.

He relies on his wife, Linda, to feed him but has not lost his sense of humor.

Hartwell told Ivanhoe, “Gotta be nice to my wife!”

In the meantime, Hartwell is participating in clinical trials, hoping to shed light on the battle against ALS.

Currently, the life span of a patient with ALS is three to five years. There are two FDA approved medications for ALS but Doctor Verma says the effects are modest. That’s why finding a cure is so urgent. He says any veteran diagnosed with ALS should contact the VA system and get enrolled. Hartwell also recommends calling the Paralyzed Veterans of America. They have supplied him with a power wheelchair and a wheelchair accessible van when needed. For more information and help for veterans go to or

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer; Janna Ross, Field Producer; Judy Reich, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

BACKGROUND: ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. The Greek root of the name translates to mean no muscle nourishment, which leads to the muscle wasting away or atrophy. As the spinal cord nerve cells degenerate, it can lead to scarring or hardening in the region. There are two different types of ALS, sporadic and familial. Sporadic is the most common form and accounts for up to 95% of all cases. Familial means the disease is inherited. In these families, there is a 50% chance each offspring will inherit the gene mutation and develop the disease.

SYMPTOMS/DIAGNOSING: Initial symptoms can vary for different people. Someone may have trouble grasping items like pens, or lifting their coffee cup. Others may experience a change in vocal pitch when speaking. The rate these symptoms and ALS overall progresses can be quite variable from one person to the next, but the median survival time is three to five years. Symptoms may begin in the muscles that control speech, swallowing, or even in the hands, arms, legs or feet. Progressive muscle weakness and paralysis are universally experienced. It is difficult to diagnose early as it can mimic other neurological diseases. Tests to rule out other conditions may include nerve conduction studies, MRI’s, EMG’s, muscle biopsy’s or spinal taps, as well as blood and urine tests.

TREATMENT AND RESEARCH: Treatment can’t reverse the damage, but it can slow progression of symptoms, prevent complications, and make you feel more independent and comfortable. An integrated team of doctors trained in many different areas may work together to provide you with proper care. Medications may be prescribed; two that are approved for ALS treatment include Riluzole (Rilutek) or Edaravone (Radicava). One is taken orally, and shown to increase life expectancy by three to six months. The second is given by intravenous infusion; its effect on life span isn’t known yet but it’s been shown to reduce the decline in daily functioning. You may also receive different therapies, such as physical, occupational, breathing care, nutritional support or speech therapy. Clinical studies are constantly taking place to further search for better treatment and a cure. Recently, it’s been concluded that the number of patients diagnosed with ALS who are war veterans is double the amount of civilian patients diagnosed with ALS. The VA, in conjunction with research teams, is working to determine the connection, in hopes it could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment. If you are a veteran and you’ve been diagnosed with ALS contact your local VA hospital for more information.
Dr. Verma)


Julie Spechler, Public Relations

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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