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Gulf War Veterans May Face Risk of ALS

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A new report by the Institute of Medicine highlights a potential connection between military service and the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The nervous system disorder, a progressive and usually fatal condition, affects 20,000 to 30,000 people in the United States, and roughly 5,000 patients are stricken with ALS every year.

According to the IOM report, “Several recent epidemiologic studies have reported an association between development of ALS and prior service in the U.S. military. Because of the findings of those studies, the Department of Veterans Affairs asked the Institute of Medicine to conduct an independent assessment of the potential relationship between military service and ALS.” The report found that there is “limited and suggestive evidence of an association between military service and later development of ALS…. In addition, research is needed to explore what might be causing ALS among veterans–whether it could be chemicals, involvement in traumatic events, intensive physical activity, or other substances or activities that might be encountered during military service.”

The IOM, part of the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed four previously published outside analyses and discovered that veterans of the Persian Gulf War of 1990 and 1991 were twice more likely to develop ALS than the general population. They also found that combat veterans who served between 1910 and 1982 were at a 50 percent greater risk of ALS than the general population. According to best estimates, hereditary factors are responsible for ALS in only 10 percent of all cases.

The origins of the neurodegenerative disease have long been a mystery to researchers, but scientists are hopeful that further research of the military connection may lead to breakthroughs in determining the disease’s root causes. While existing studies have proven to be inconclusive, researchers believe that the evidence is strong enough to warrant more studies.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Johns Hopkins’ Richard T. Johnson, one of the authors, said, “Nobody thinks that if you put on a uniform you’ll get it. The report simply encourages further investigation into whether service in the military causes it and what are the risks.”

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