Health Watch -- Gulf War and ALS

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Veterans of the first Gulf War may be at greater risk for a deadly neurological disease.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have been at the forefront of identifying and tracking neurological illnesses in veterans of the first Gulf War. Now they’ve determined that these veterans are at greater risk for ALS, a deadly, degenerative neurological disease.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It causes weakness in the arms and legs and difficulty breathing, speaking and swallowing. Eventually, it leads to the loss of all muscle function.

The disease most often strikes people between the ages of 50 and 70 and is rarely seen in people younger than 45. But Dr. Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at UT Southwestern, found that ALS is striking Gulf War veterans in their 20s and 30s in surprising numbers. He looked at statistical data on the US population and calculated that, under normal circumstances, about one case of ALS should have occurred among  Gulf War vets in 1998. In reality, there were five cases reported that year, and it’s possible that there were even more cases not reported. Two-thirds of the veterans had symptoms of Gulf War syndrome before they were diagnosed.

A similar study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed these findings. Researchers believe that a combination of chemical exposure and genetic susceptibility is responsible for the problems associated with Gulf War syndrome.