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The Signs and Symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease

As seniors advance in age, there will be changes in their memory, cognition, personality, and physical well-being.

Minor changes are expected and nothing to worry about, but if you notice significant changes in your senior loved one, it will warrant attention and a visit with their physician.

Seniors facing the challenges of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), often struggle with diminished motor skills. Early symptoms of this condition typically manifest as sensations and weakness in the arms and legs.

Learn more about Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms, risk factors, treatment options, and where to find a compassionate memory care community.

What is ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease)?

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. It affects the person’s physicality instead of their cognitive abilities or senses.

It was nicknamed after the legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with the condition in the 1930s and eventually passed away.

You may remember the viral Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 when participants filmed themselves getting a bucket of ice water dunked on them in order to draw attention to ALS and earn donations for the ALS Association.

While public awareness of ALS has increased, there is currently no cure. Donations to organizations such as the ALS Association typically go towards research to find treatments and understand the disease.

The more that everyone can understand the disease, the earlier they’ll be able to detect it in loved ones and seek treatment. 

How does Lou Gehrig’s Disease affect the body?

ALS gradually impairs an individual’s ability to control their voluntary muscle movements. This can affect the person diagnosed with the condition in a number of ways.

Motor neuron degeneration

ALS is characterized by degeneration and the eventual death of motor neurons responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to the muscles throughout the body.

Muscle weakness and atrophy

The progressive loss of motor neurons leads to muscle weakness and atrophy in individuals with ALS.

Initial symptoms typically involve difficulty performing tasks requiring muscle strength, such as lifting objects, walking, or speaking. Over time, muscle weakness spreads to other parts of the body, causing a visible decline in muscle mass.

Impaired motor skills

As ALS advances, individuals experience a decline in their motor skills. Simple actions like writing, buttoning clothes, or picking up objects become increasingly challenging. Hand coordination and dexterity diminish, making precise movements difficult to execute.

Speech and swallowing difficulties

The muscles responsible for speech production and swallowing are also affected by ALS. Individuals may develop slurred speech, experience difficulty enunciating words, or notice a weakening of their voice. Swallowing becomes problematic, leading to the risk of choking or coughing while eating or drinking.

Respiratory complications

As the disease progresses, the weakening of muscles extends to those involved in breathing. This results in respiratory difficulties, including shortness of breath, frequent respiratory infections, and reduced lung function.

Seniors with Lou Gehrig’s Disease typically require respiratory support in later stages, such as breathing devices or ventilators. The late stages of the disease typically occur 3-5 years after diagnosis, however, progression will also vary by person.

Cognitive and emotional changes

While ALS primarily affects motor neurons, some individuals may also experience cognitive and emotional changes. This can include difficulties with executive functions, memory, and emotional regulation.

However, it’s important to note that these changes vary in severity, and not all seniors with ALS experience cognitive impairment.

As the condition advances, your senior loved one’s symptoms will worsen, requiring a higher level of care beyond what you can provide. This is when you may explore options for enhanced assisted living communities.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease symptoms and how to get a diagnosis

A timely and accurate diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease is crucial for seniors and their families. While there is no single test to diagnose the disease, the first step toward a diagnosis is recognizing the symptoms of ALS.

Watch for the following symptoms in your loved one:

  • Twitching in the hands and feet
  • Frequent muscle cramps
  • Loss of motor control in the hands and arms
  • Tripping and falling often
  • Dropping things more than usual
  • Persistent fatigue

If your loved one has any of these symptoms, the next step in the diagnostic process would be to consult their primary care physician. Their physician may refer them to a specialist for further evaluation based on their assessment.

A neurologist is usually the healthcare professional responsible for diagnosing ALS. They perform comprehensive neurological examinations, which include assessing muscle strength, reflexes, coordination, and sensory responses.

They may also order additional tests to rule out other possible causes. Common tests and procedures may include the following.

Electromyogram (EMG) and nerve conduction studies

EMG and nerve conduction studies are commonly conducted to assess the function of the muscles and nerves.

These tests involve the placement of small electrodes on the skin, which measure electrical activity and provide insights into the health of the motor neurons and muscles.

Imaging and laboratory tests

In some cases, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans may be performed to rule out other conditions that may mimic ALS.

Additionally, blood and urine tests may be conducted to eliminate alternative explanations and support the ALS diagnosis.

Cerebrospinal fluid test

Healthcare professionals may collect and examine spinal fluid to assess the presence of specific biomarkers.

Causes and risk factors of the disease

Understanding the causes and risk factors associated with ALS can provide valuable insights into the development and progression of this neurodegenerative disorder. There are two main types of ALS: familial and sporadic.

Genetic factors

A significant number of ALS cases are believed to have a genetic component. Approximately 5-10% of cases are classified as familial ALS.

Sporadic ALS

Most ALS cases are classified as sporadic ALS, meaning they occur without any clear genetic cause or family history. A combination of genetic and environmental factors likely influences sporadic ALS.


ALS can affect individuals of various age groups, but it primarily occurs in adults between 40 and 70. The risk of developing ALS tends to increase with age, with the highest incidence observed in individuals in their 60s and 70s.


Men have a slightly higher risk of developing ALS compared to women. However, it’s important to note the difference in risk between genders is relatively small.

Environmental factors

Although environmental factors do not directly cause most ALS cases, certain environmental exposures have been suggested to increase the risk of developing the disease. These include exposure to toxins, heavy metals, pesticides, and occupational hazards.

Lifestyle and habits

While the impact of lifestyle habits on ALS development is not fully understood, some studies have suggested potential associations. Notably, those who have served in the military or had an athletic career are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Other factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, and dietary choices have been explored as potential modifiable risk factors. Research suggests that foods high in carotenoids such as carrots and colorful peppers, leafy green vegetables, and vitamin E found in nuts and fish can help reduce the risk of ALS.

Creating a care plan for your senior loved one

Developing a comprehensive care plan for your senior loved one is crucial to ensure their well-being, comfort, and quality of life. While there isn’t any cure or treatment, medication, and therapies can help to minimize Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms.

As your loved one ages, their needs may change, requiring thoughtful consideration and coordination of various aspects of care. Consider the following to help you create a care plan for your loved one.

Assess care needs

Consider your loved one’s physical health, cognitive abilities, mobility, emotional well-being, and any medical conditions.

Which daily activities do they need assistance with? Determine the level of care your loved one requires with activities such as bathing, dressing, grooming, and meal preparation.

Involve healthcare professionals

Professionals, such as primary care physicians and geriatricians, can provide valuable insight and guidance in creating a plan and recommending treatments or therapies.

Home environment evaluation

Identify potential hazards or modifications needed to ensure their comfort and minimize the risk of accidents. Minimize rugs and cords or other tripping hazards and make sure that everything they need is easily within their reach.

Medication management

Set up pill organizers, schedule medication reminders, and consider involving a pharmacist or nurse to review and manage medication regimens.

Social engagement and emotional support

Promote social interaction and emotional well-being by incorporating activities and opportunities. At The Kensington Falls Church, we do this for your loved one, by offering a calendar full of life-enrichment activities.

Financial and legal considerations

Review financial and legal matters to ensure your loved one’s affairs are in order. This may involve organizing important documents, such as wills, power of attorney, and advance healthcare directives. This should ideally be done just after they receive their diagnosis while they’re still able to participate and make decisions.

Your partners in care: The Kensington Falls Church

At The Kensington Falls Church, we understand the challenges associated with Lou Gehrig’s disease symptoms. It’s Our Promise to provide compassionate care for your family as if they were our own.

Our dedicated team ensures your loved one feels safe, secure, and comfortable throughout their journey.

Whether your senior requires minimal assistance or specialized care, our team and nurses can provide support, administer medication and injections, and address their specific needs.

Our enhanced assisted living and memory care communities offer a range of services to cater to your loved one’s unique needs.

These include:

Reach out or check out our blog to learn more about the amenities, resources, and upcoming events we offer our residents and their families.

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