baseball glove with ball and bat

This Fourth of July marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most famous sports speeches in American history: Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech as he retired from playing baseball for the New York Yankees. The year was 1939, and the sports world was reeling from the announcement that Gehrig had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Gehrig first began to notice symptoms about a year earlier when he just didn’t seem to have his usual strength to hit balls out of the park. Soon after, his baseball skills began to deteriorate, making it hard to catch a ball and quickly run to base. He had played 2,130 games in a row during his career, but was no longer able to play. Once he was diagnosed with ALS, he became the face and name attached to the disease, and the nation was made aware of how devastating ALS is. Gehrig passed away two years after his retirement from the sport he loved. He was only 37 years old.

Today, the ALS Association is marking the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s speech by spreading awareness and focusing on fundraising to find a cure. Currently, there is no cure for ALS—and there is little that can be done to slow the progression of the disease. But research is ongoing, and with all of the medical advances and new technology today, there is increasing assistance and support available for those suffering from ALS.

Approximately 2 out of every 100,000 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year. The disease causes motor neurons throughout the body to die, affecting a person’s ability to control the body’s voluntary muscles. These are the muscles that you control and move on your own: muscles in your arms, hands, legs, neck, mouth, throat, lungs, etc. Muscles that are involuntary, that work on their own (for example, the muscles that cause the heart to pump or food to be digested) are not affected by ALS.

According to the ALS division of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, ALS can begin with either a bulbar or limb onset. Bulbar onset ALS tends to be a faster progressing form of the disease. Bulbar means the muscles of the mouth and face are affected first. A person may begin slurring speech or their voice may lower or become growly. With limb onset ALS, a person may notice muscles becoming weaker, cramping or twitching, and may even begin to have poor balance or fall often. No matter which area of the body is affected by ALS first, the symptoms eventually spread to other areas of the body. Ultimately, as the disease progresses, it can lead to paralysis and the need for a feeding tube and assisted breathing.Senior-man-not-feeling-well-[469x669]

The progression of ALS is different with each person. In the past, those diagnosed with ALS were only expected to live a few years, but now, the ALS Association says, “About twenty percent of people with ALS live five years or more and up to ten percent will survive more than ten years and five percent will live 20 years. There are people in whom ALS has stopped progressing and a small number of people in whom the symptoms of ALS reversed.”

Currently, there are no avoidable causes of ALS—it can be genetic, but that is rare. In most patients it just appears for no know reason. The ALS Association assures that “it is not contagious.” But “ALS can strike anyone.” A majority (60%) of patients with ALS are men and 93% are Caucasian. And sadly, “America’s military veterans are approximately twice as likely to develop ALS than other segments of our population.”

This is a difficult disease to talk about and even more difficult to receive a diagnosis for or watch a loved one suffer through. Thankfully, there is support available. The ALS Association website serves as a great resource to educate visitors and connect patients with resources and with others who have ALS. The website is full of inspiring stories from those who live with ALS or who serve as a caregiver. Most of those who have posted stories on the site mention a great love for those who assist and support them.

Lou Gehrig mentioned this same thing in his farewell speech. He lists examples of all the kindness and love that people had shown him since his diagnosis. Even his rivals, the New York Giants, sent him a token of their support. He closes with these words: “When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

On this 75th anniversary of that speech, let’s raise awareness for ALS. Let’s reach out to others who may be suffering and struggling. Those who have ALS and those who care for someone with ALS need our help and love. And let’s support events that are happening across the country to raise funds for ALS research, so that someday there will be a cure.