Stephen Hawking, who died on March 14, 2018, was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since he was 21 years old, a disease usually fatal within a few months… to which the astrophysicist has survived several decades. An “exceptional” case for neurologists.
Stephen Hawking, the famous British astrophysicist, died on March 14, 2018 at the age of 76. He had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Charcot’s disease, since he was 21 years old, a neurodegenerative pathology leading to a gradual loss of mobility. Paralysis gradually sets in and causes respiratory failure, which most often leads to death within 2 to 5 years (depending on the form of the disease). In other words, the scientist’s incredible longevity in the face of the illness is a medical mystery. In 2002, when Stephen Hawking was turning 60, the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a famous scientific journal from across the Atlantic, went back on the fascinating case to understand how the disease work.
Higher chance of survival when the disease starts early in life
“Patients survive an average of 14 months after the diagnosis has been made,” Neigel Leigh, a professor of clinical neurology at King’s College London, told BMJ. “But we found that the survival rate was dramatically improved in younger patients, sometimes for decades, it’s completely different when the disease appears at a early age, and strangely nobody knows why.”
“When the disease arises during the fifties or the sixties, the patients have a life expectancy that is about 4 years,” added the neurologist. “Hawking’s case is an exceptional case, I do not know anyone else who has survived ALS for so long, and what is incredible is not only his longevity, but also the progressive stabilization of this rare disease in patients having contracted the disease at young age”, also detailed the professor.
There are also many genetic variants of the disease: “At least 6 to 12 genetic forms, although we must also explore the possible interaction of the disease with the aging process,” said the neurologist.
A message of hope
In his response to the British publication, Stephen Hawking explained using a special diet, enriched with vitamins and fatty acids and gluten-free. He attended frequent physiotherapy sessions to slow down the muscle damage. “I have had ALS for most of my adult life, but that has not stopped me from succeeding in my career plans, and I was lucky that the illness progressed more slowly in me. This shows that you should never lose hope,” explained the physicist.