African-Americans with ALS Live Longer

March 29, 2019

A new study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Health found that African-Americans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) lived longer than Caucasians with ALS, although the disease is more common in whites. 

The study is published in the current online issue of the journal Neurology.

“Our research suggested that African-Americans lived longer because they received tracheostomies at a higher rate than Caucasians,” said the study’s lead author, Michael Cartwright, MD, professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist. 

In the study, Cartwright’s team conducted a retrospective case-controlled study with 49 African-Americans and 137 Caucasians with ALS. 

Only about 2 percent of people with ALS in the United States have a tracheostomy as an intervention. But in this study, the researchers found that there were three times as many black patients who had the procedure as white patients. 

A tracheostomy surgically creates an opening through the neck into the windpipe to provide an airway and to remove secretions from the lungs.

“Once you have a tracheostomy and a ventilator, patients can live longer, but unfortunately with this disease that may not be a good quality of life,” Cartwright said. “Although we couldn’t pinpoint why African-Americans had more tracheostomies in our study, we do know that earlier interventions, such as breathing masks, can slow down the rate of decline and provide patients more time and options for dealing with the disease.” 

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. Patients in the later stages of the disease may be totally paralyzed.

“We think it is very important for people dealing with the disease to think about their quality of life and decide what interventions are most important to them,” Cartwright said. “As doctors we can advise and help them make these decisions beforehand rather than in emergency situations, as is often the case with tracheostomies.”

Media Contacts 

Marguerite Beck, marbeck@wakehealth.edu336-716-2415