Rare Disease Report

Physicist and ALS Survivor Stephen Hawking Celebrates His 76th Birthday

JANUARY 08, 2018
Kaitlynn Ely
Stephen Hawking, the notable British physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, celebrates his 76th birthday today, making him one of the longest surviving patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Life expectancy for most patients living with ALS is 3 years, with 10% living up to 10 years after diagnosis, and only 5% living beyond 20 years of diagnosis.  Hawking is one of the few to have lived over half a century with ALS.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a degenerative neurological disease that affects voluntary muscle movements over time, and limits a patient’s ability to eat, breath, talk, and walk independently. Early signs of ALS include slurred speech and muscle weakness, and patients diagnosed with the disease are most commonly between 55 and 75 years old.

Typically, a patient with ALS will die from respiratory failure, malnutrition, or dehydration, as the cells that control breathing and swallowing lose function.

In 1963, Hawking, 21, was diagnosed with the motor neuron disease, and was given only 2 years to live. Miraculously, he has lived more than 50 years with the disease, and has continued to perform research for the condition. Occasionally, he still conducts lectures at Cambridge University, where he has served as a faculty member for the Institute of Astronomy for more than 40 years. In 2009, the University named him director of research to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP).

Many believe that his longevity could be attributed to either his genetic makeup or his early diagnosis, both of which have been proven to be linked with increased survival. Dr Anthony Geraci, director of the Neuromuscular Center at Northwell Health’s Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, New York, has said that more than 20 different genes are involved with ALS, and it’s the genetic differences that make every patient’s survival unique.

Hawking has pursued his research on the origins of the universe since finishing his Ph.D. in 1966. In 1976, the physicist was awarded the Royal Society Medal for his breakthrough research on black holes. His book, A Brief History of Time, instantly became a bestseller in 1988 and is still referenced today.

“I have lived most of my life in the expectation of an early death, so time has always been precious to me,” stated Hawking in 2006. "I have so much that I want to do. I hate wasting time.”

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