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Health & Exercise Forum

ALS and Dementia: Part 1 of 2

Sep 8, 2014

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumALS & DEMENTIA UPDATES: Part 1 of 2

By now, most of you are familiar with or have participated in the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” If not, I encourage you to do so. I met my challenge a few weeks ago and dedicated it to my cousin, Joanne Mackarey Coyne. Joanne, with the tremendous love, care, and support of her dedicated family and friends, has not allowed ALS to daunt her strong spirit and beautiful smile. The ALS challenge has truly “gone viral” and has not only raised awareness about the disease, but as of August 27, 2014, the ALS Association has reported 94.3 million dollars (compared to 2.1 million last year) in contributions for research, support and education for this devastating neurodegenerative disease.

What is a neurodegenerative disease? Unfortunately, many of us have been affected by a friend or family member with a devastating disease that takes a tremendous physical, emotional and financial toll on everyone involved. Today Part I on ALS & Dementia in “Health & Exercise Forum” discusses the four most common neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s,(the most common form of dementia), Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in an effort to raise the level of awareness and educate the public. Next week in Part II, Christopher Cali, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is pursuing a PhD in Genetics, will discuss updates on these diseases as it relates to his research.


What is a neurodegenerative disease?

Neurodegenerative diseases, including; ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, (the most common form of dementia), Parkinson’s and Huntington’s can take a devastating toll on patients and families. This broad category of diseases is characterized by the destruction of neurons that are important for memory and muscle function. It’s estimated that up to 50 million Americans currently suffer from a neurodegenerative disease, and this number is expected to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. The financial burden on society is huge as well.  Dementia care alone is estimated to cost $250 billion dollars each year in the US. With the enormous mental, physical and societal burden of these diseases, scientists have made understanding neurodegenerative diseases a major priority.


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, according to the ALS Association. As the disease progresses and the motor neurons are destroyed, the ability of the brain to initiate voluntary muscle movement is lost and paralysis remains. Early symptoms include muscle weakness in the arms and legs, difficulty swallowing and speaking. While there is not cure presently, riluzole, an FDA approved drug, has been modestly successful in slowing the progression of ALS. For more information visit:


Alzheimer’s Disease

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term used to describe a decline in mental function which presents significant difficulty in intellectual functions which affects everyday activities. Memory loss is the hallmark sign of this neurodegenerative disease. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common forms of dementia as it accounts for approximately 60-80 percent of all cases. Alzheimer’s is NOT a normal part of aging as approximately 5 percent of patients with the disease have early onset in their 40’s or 50’s. While dementia typically is a gradual process, Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that often leads to the ability to carry on a conversation or provide self-care. While people with this disease can survive from four to twenty years, after the onset of noticeable symptoms, the average survival is eight years, depending on age and other health problems. For more information visit:


Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease is neurodegenerative brain disorder that occurs when neurons in the brain fail to produce enough dopamine, a chemical that relays messages from one part of the brain to another, to control movements of the body. A hallmark sign of this disease is the loss of smooth coordinated movement. The disease progresses slowly in most people as most live more than twenty years following diagnosis. While there is no actual cure for Parkinson’s, treatment is available to help control symptoms and improve the quality of life. For more information visit:


Huntington’s Disease

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative genetic disease the affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive and behavioral symptoms. The hallmark sign of this disease is abnormal involuntary thrashing movements called chorea. It affects both men and women and symptoms using begin between 35 and 44 years of age. Early symptoms include mood and cognition changes that are followed by uncoordinated and unsteady walking. As the disease progresses slowly over twenty years full-time care is required in the later stages. While there is no cure available drugs are available to help control symptoms and improve the quality of life. For more information visit:

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Contributor: Christopher Cali, received his BS in biology from Villanova University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Genetics from the University of Pennsylvania. To find out more about his work or donate directly to ALS research in his lab, visit:

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune: Part 2 on “ALS UPDATE” by Christopher Cali.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.