Lifestyle & environment: Highlights from Glasgow

This blog is part of the ‘Highlights from Glasgow’ collection of articles, where you can read about the content of some of the talks and posters presented at the 29th International Symposium on ALS/MND.

In the Epidemiology session (5C), several talks focused on the risk associated with various lifetime events, and the demographics of people who develop MND categorised by onset at various body regions. Susan Peters (C37) and her colleagues studied a group of 1,500 people with MND and 3,000 control participants, and found that people who had suffered head trauma after the age of 55 had an increased risk of developing the disease compared to those without this type trauma. They further found reduced risk in people currently/recently taking antihypertensive and cholesterol-lowering medication, but this risk was significantly increased in people who were taking these medications earlier in life. These findings now need to be explored further to investigate the underlying mechanisms that would explain these differences.Read More »

Exercise after diagnosis – a closer look at the evidence

Physical activity and MND – part 2

This is part two of our series of blogs looking at links between physical activity and MND. This article will look at whether or not exercise should be continued after diagnosis.

Exercise is widely recommended to the general population due to its benefits to health and wellbeing. It improves the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and endocrine functions and leads to psychological wellbeing. Many people with MND specifically ask whether they can safely continue to exercise regularly without fear of accelerating their disease. At present, there is no firm evidence that exercise exerts a harmful effect, although avoidance of very strenuous activity would seem to be sensible. Low-grade, managed, exercise programmes may even be of benefit.Read More »

Does physical activity cause MND? A fresh look at the evidence

Physical activity and MND – part 1

Every month the Research Information team looks at ‘the stats’ for the MND Research blog. These show us how many times each of our blogs are looked at and, every month, ‘Physical activity and MND – is there a link?’ features in the top five. This is possibly driven by media stories of professional sportspeople who have been diagnosed with MND. As we receive a lot of emails about this subject, we felt it was about time for an update as ‘the stats’ suggest this is a topic close to people’s hearts.

This is the first of three blog articles looking at MND and physical activity and other factors that may, or may not, play a role in the development of the disease.

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Physical activity and MND – is there a link?

The results of new research investigating a link between physical activity and MND was presented by the University of Sheffield research group in the late-breaking news session on the last day of the 24th International Symposium on ALS/MND. Under the leadership of Prof Pam Shaw, along with Dr Chris McDermott, MND Association-funded researcher Dr Ceryl Harwood presented her findings.

Dr Brian Dickie, director of research development
Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development

The background of MND and physical activity

Physical activity and the link between MND has long been debated amongst researchers.

There are a number of different types of physical activity; from leisure time (for example an evening walk) to more vigorous physical activity and athleticism (marathon runners and professional sportsmen).

Previous research back in 2008 found that Italians playing professional football had an increased risk of developing MND. However, this research is yet to be confirmed in other countries. Director of Research, Dr Brian Dickie said: “The Italian researchers also looked at professional cyclists and basketball players, but no association was found, so basically the jury has been out on whether athleticism is a risk factor for MND.”

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If you were a car, would you be a Ferrari or a Focus?

People at increased risk of MND might be the human equivalent of high performance cars – built for speed and agility but becoming unreliable once they reach a high mileage.

There is much anecdotal evidence amongst MND clinicians and those affected by the disease that people who develop MND tend to have been relatively physically fit before their diagnosis, often having been involved in various athletic pursuits throughout their life. This prompted MND Association-funded researcher Dr Martin Turner to ask the intriguing question: Is an athletic physique an outward sign of a subtle predisposition to MND? But how could he make a sensible measurement of ‘athletic physique’ in order to answer such a question? Or as he put it in his presentation on Thursday morning, do people with MND have motor system run to death, or is it a motor system born to run?

A pragmatic way of looking at this was to look at the history of coronary heart disease and whether this is linked to a likelihood of developing MND later in life. Dr Turner has recently published this study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry). Through very careful examination of hospital medical records, he and his colleagues compared numbers of MND cases in over a hundred thousand people with a history of coronary heart disease to an even larger group with no known heart problems.

The study did reveal a slightly increased occurrence of MND in the group with healthy hearts, providing indirect evidence that MND is more likely to occur in people with greater levels of ‘fitness’. Dr Turner’s results were in fact corroborated by the findings of another more general study of lifestyle and environmental factors presented in the same session. Dr Marc Huisman’s meticulously executed and much admired questionnaire-based study of the Dutch population also suggested that people with MND were less likely to have relatives with heart disease, indicating a more genetically robust cardiovascular system, amongst many other findings.

Dr Turner’s findings are intriguing but there is still plenty more work to do and many questions are left unanswered. There are other studies that support the possibility of an increased MND risk in people with a healthy cardiovascular system and lean build but of course these two characteristics are also a result of undertaking higher levels of exercise – the question of whether exercise itself contributes to MND still won’t go away. However, Dr Turner’s work supports the concept that if you’re born with a natural leaning towards athletic prowess, you may excel at sport (or in evolutionary terms, hunting down your dinner) but your nervous system wiring may also be more vulnerable to MND as you age – a factor that’s only become problematic with the dramatic increases in life expectancy that have come about in the last couple of hundred years.

As Dr Turner put it at one our spring conferences this year, people with MND may well come from amongst the Ferraris of the human race. With clearer identification of risk factors, prevention of MND becomes a more realistic possibility. It may be that in future the Ferraris can undertake a specialised servicing schedule to ensure they have a greater chance of breaking the 100,000 mile barrier with their electrics in good working order!

Read our official press release on day two of the symposium.