What killed Lou Gehrig?

Among the most startling news stories of the current news cycle, this one may be tops: Lou Gehrig may not have died from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Gehrig held the record for the most consecutive games played in baseball until Cal Ripken broke it a few years ago. Over that time, he brushed off plenty of injuries. That may be what killed him, according to researchers from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Massachusetts, who will present their findings tomorrow.

Gehrig might have suffered instead from brain trauma. The researchers said markings in the spinal cords of two football players and a boxer showed that they didn’t die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, even though that was their diagnosis.

How could this be? “Most A.L.S. patients don’t go to autopsy — there’s no need to look at your brain and spinal cord,” Dr. Brian Crum, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, told the New York Times. “But a disease can look like A.L.S., it can look like Alzheimer’s, and it’s not when you look at the actual tissue. This is something that needs to be paid attention to.”

But, far too many people have ALS for real. Over the weekend, for example, Eric Obermann was buried. He was one of the youngest people ever diagnosed with ALS. He was struck by the disease when he was only 18. He died last week at 28. You may remember him from emotional testimony before a Congressional panel in 2005, or as a spokesperson for ALS research.

There will be no doubt what killed him.

“We just have so much respect and admiration for what he did …,” Stuart Obermann said of his son. “He gave everything he had left. His last selfless act was donating his brain and spinal cord to ALS research.”

Update 2:53 p.m. U of M’s Gary Schweitzer isn’t buying the NYT story quite yet.

  • Gary Thaden

    Before you jump to conclusions about this check out Gary Schwitzer’s Health News Review blog at http://www.healthnewsreview.org/blog/2010/08/nyts-unfounded-leap-lou-gehrig-might-not-have-had-lou-gehrigs-disease.html on this subject.

    “But the story did not exhibit the best of health/medical/science journalism.

    1. It was based on a study of 3 people. (The ALS Association says there are up to 30,000 people in the US living with ALS.)

    2. It stated, “Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease.” (No evidence for this was provided. He also may not have been a great left-handed hitter. That may have been an optical illusion.)

    3. It said this could “perhaps lead toward new pathways for a cure.” (After a suggestive finding in just three people?)

    4. The story later says, “The finding’s relevance to Gehrig is less clear.” (Hedging already after a bold earlier statement in the story.)

    5. But just a few paragraphs later, the story says, “The new finding…suggests that Gehrig might not have had (ALS).” (Head spinning yet?)

    5. The story dropped lots of big names – Gehrig, Stephen Hawking, Michael J. Fox, former NFL players Wally Hilgenberg and Eric Scoggins, Cal Ripken – in a jumble of claims, associations – or was it just plain name-dropping in order to make the story more appealing?

    6. The story brought in “recent epidemiological studies” in soccer players and soldiers without one word about the possible limitations of such studies.

    7. It went into detail that a historian or sports nut would love about Gehrig’s football concussions or baseball beanings or fights with Ty Cobb. But all of this just fed the theory that was not supported by anything but guesswork and innuendo.”

  • Bob,

    Schwitzer is the proper spelling.

    And the U of M is no longer my home. I resigned my tenured faculty position in May so that I could devote closer to fulltime attention to HealthNewsReview.org and its accompanying blog. (Even when I did work there, I would not accept the possessive “U of M’s Gary Schwitzer.”)

    Thanks for pointing readers to our critique.

    Gary Schwitzer