Barrow ALS Experts Share Thoughts on Stephen Hawking’s Longevity

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking dedicated his life to studying the origin of the universe and became world-renowned for transforming our understanding of black holes.

He brought his scholarly work to the masses in 1988 with the best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time,” which sold more than 10 million copies in 20 years.

Hawking also served as a symbol of hope for people diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and an advocate for all people with disabilities.

Hawking was diagnosed with ALS in 1963 at age 21. According to the ALS Association, most people who develop the disease are between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis.

photo of Barrow Research Professor Robert Bowser, PhD

Barrow Research Professor Robert Bowser, PhD

Dr. Robert Bowser, ALS researcher and chairman of neurobiology at Barrow, said the average life span after diagnosis is two to five years. Hawking was expected to survive only a few years but ultimately outlived his prognosis by half a century.

“ALS can strike at all ages including the young, as was the case with Dr. Hawking,” said Dr. Shafeeq Ladha, director of the Gregory W. Fulton ALS and Neuromuscular Disease Center at Barrow. “Fortunately, younger patients tend to have slower disease progression. The reason for this is not clearly understood but certainly helped Hawking to live longer and therefore achieve many of the amazing things he achieved.”

ALS is a progressive neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerve cells responsible for initiating and controlling voluntary muscle movements. Most people with ALS die of respiratory failure once the disease affects the breathing muscles.

According to the ALS Association, about 20 percent of people with ALS live five years after diagnosis, 10 percent live 10 years, and 5 percent live 20 years or more.

“Stephen Hawking’s longevity was remarkable,” Dr. Ladha said. “In part, his genetics and excellent caregivers are responsible. However, he is also proof that a determined spirit who engages in life with a purpose can impact survival.”

Hawking spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair and eventually was only able to speak through a computer system that responded to movements in his cheek.

Shafeeq Ladha, MD
Neuromuscular Specialist

While studies have found that some people with ALS do develop some degree of cognitive impairment, Hawking’s intellect appeared to be left untouched by the disease.

“All of Professor Hawking’s major discoveries were made after he was diagnosed with ALS,” Dr. Bowser said. “This goes to show that ALS patients can still do extraordinary things after being diagnosed.”

Hawking encouraged others with disabilities to concentrate on the things they were still able to do well rather than regret the things their disability interfered with.

“However difficult life may seem,” he said, “there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

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