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Mar 14

How Did Stephen Hawking Beat the Odds Against ALS?

ALS Headlines
‘The honest answer is, we don’t have a clue.’

Reprinted from The Daily Beast

Editor's note: Stephen Hawking passed away on Wednesday after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This piece has been updated to reflect that.

In January, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking celebrated his 76thbirthday. And despite the fact that Hawking's research changed the way people think about the creation of the universe, turning 76 may have actually been one of his most impressive accomplishments: Hawking was never supposed to have survived past the age of 25.

While pursuing a research position at Cambridge in 1962, Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, later revealed to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. When a patient is affected by ALS, the motor neurons in his brain and spinal column start to progressively weaken and die, which in turn affects muscles that control voluntary movements. At first, these muscles will weaken or stiffen, which can result in slurred speech or an inability to button or zip clothes. But eventually, these muscles will cease to function altogether, and within months or years, patients lose the ability to walk, speak, and breathe independently.

According to information from the ALS Association, the majority of patients with ALS die between two and five years after being diagnosed. Only ten percent of patients go on to live ten years past their diagnosis.

So far, Hawking has managed to survive an astounding 57 years.

So how has Hawking managed to live so long? “The honest answer is, we don't have a clue,” Jeffrey Rothstein, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and Director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research, told The Daily Beast. “I've had patients die three months after a diagnosis, and I've had others live 27 years. The disease runs its own course. It’s very individual.”

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