Did Lou Gehrig Have Lou Gehrig's Disease?

August 18, 2010

New research begs the question, "Did Lou Gehrig actually have Lou Gehrig's disease?"

Research results to be published online today ahead of print in the September issue of the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology suggest that the famous New York Yankees slugger—and other athletes and soldiers who are given the diagnosis at considerably higher rates than the general population—may not have suffered from the condition that bares his name.

A team of researchers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, MA, and the Boston University School of Medicine, have found that those with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) often actually suffer from the long-term effects of concussions and other brain trauma. Focusing mostly on the brain damage of deceased NFL players, and not Lou Gehrig himself, the team specifically said that studies of two NFL players and a boxer whom all were diagnosed with ALS actually showed the spinal cord markings of another fatal disease caused by concussion-like trauma that erodes the CNS much in the same way as does ALS.

Experts who have seen the paper before its publication have told the New York Timesthat the findings could lead to a redirection in the study of athletes and military veterans with motor degenerative diseases and conditions. A reconsideration of their condition and thus how to treat it could lead toward new ways to find a cure.

“Most A.L.S. patients don’t go to autopsy—there’s no need to look at your brain and spinal cord,” said Dr. Brian Crum, assistant professor, Neurology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. “But a disease can look like ALS, it can look like Alzheimer’s, and it’s not when you look at the actual tissue. This is something that needs to be paid attention to.”

Though we’ll never know if Gehrig actually had ALS—even if his family would agree to his remains being studied, he was cremated—the significant concussions he sustained during the days of non-helmet-wearing batters, as well as a halfback in high school and college football—are well documented. Thus, it’s quite possible that his dedication to playing through pain and injuries, leading to his streak of 2,130 consecutive games, could have led to his demise.

“Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience,” said lead author Dr. Ann McKee, director, neuropathology laboratory, New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers.

For More:

  • Read more about the connection between ALS-like motor disease and head trauma, ALS in the NFL, and Lou Gehrig’s mystery and his legend, in the New York Times.
  • Look for the paper published in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology.
  • Visit the ALS Association website for healthcare professionals.