Stephen Hawking fascinated astrophysicists with his otherworldly theories. But he also blew the minds of medical experts by living with ALS for 55 years.
Accomplishments aside, Hawking was somewhat of a medical miracle. Experts struggle to find anyone who has lived longer with the disease than Hawking, the famed physicist who died Wednesday at 76.
“We wish we knew because that would give us clues to treatment,” said Dr. Lucie Bruijn, the ALS Association’s chief scientist. “His lifespan is exceptional. I think there are few — I certainly don’t know of any others — that have had such a long lifespan.”
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or motor neuron disease — can kill someone within a few months of diagnosis, and there’s only a 10% chance patients live more than a decade, the ALS Association says.
Some medical experts have suggested Hawking lived so long because he developed the disease so early in his life, a theory yet to be proven, Bruijn said.
“There’s no real evidence for that,” she said. “One could imagine that obviously if you are younger your body is able to cope with something that might go awry.”
The organization claims most people are diagnosed between 40 and 70. Hawking was diagnosed at age 21.
He will go down in history as the man who changed the way we view the universe. USA TODAY
British neurologists considered the youth theory in a 2002 article on Hawking in the British Medical Journal.
“We have found that the survival in younger patients is strikingly better and is measured in many years — in some cases more than 10,” said King’s College clinical neurology professor Nigel Leigh in the article. “Among people in their 50s and 60s, there is a 50% chance of surviving four years or so. It is a different beast if you start young, oddly, and no one knows why.”
Pam Shaw, a professor of neurology at England’s University of Sheffield, told the journal she, too, wasn’t sure why some people live longer with the disease.
“The older you are the quicker the disease course tends to be, but we don’t really have a handle on why some people survive for longer periods than others. I wish we did,” she said.
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