What is ALS, the condition Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with?

  • Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), her manager revealed

  • The motor neurone disease has left the 85-year-old singer unable to sing

  • Flack, who suffered from a stroke in 2016, "plans to stay active in her musical and creative pursuits"

  • Read the full article to understand exactly what ALS is, as well as the signs and symptoms and where to get help

Watch: Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease and can no longer sing

Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and is no longer able to sing.

The Grammy-winning singer and pianist, 85, known for hits including Killing Me Softly with His Song and The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, has been diagnosed with the motor neurone disease (MND), her manager announced.

The progressive condition "has made it impossible to sing and not easy to speak," Flack's manager Suzanne Koga said in a release on Monday 14 November, as reported by AP News. "But it will take a lot more than ALS to silence this icon."

Flack, who had also had a stroke in 2016, now "plans to stay active in her musical and creative pursuits" including her foundation dedicated to animal welfare and helping children, especially girls, with their music education.

But what exactly is ALS – the same condition that actor and playwright Sam Shepard sadly died from complications of in 2017 – and what else might Flack be experiencing?

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Roberta Flack, who has been diagnosed with ALS, pictured smiling backstage at a Black Girls Rock! event in 2017.
Roberta Flack has been diagnosed with ALS, pictured at Black Girls Rock! backstage at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), August, 2017. (Getty Images)

What is ALS?

ALS is the most common type of MND in the UK, affecting approximately 85% of those diagnosed, according to South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

MND is an umbrella term used to describe a a group of diseases that affect the motor nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which control your muscles. The affected nerves become damaged and stop messages reaching the muscle, causing weakness and wasting.

Depending on the type of disease, muscles in the hands, feet, mouth and throat can be affected, also impacting how you walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe.

In ALS, both upper and lower motor neurones (the nerves) are affected.

ALS symptoms

Senior man gripping a set of keys to show problems with gripping. (Getty Images)
ALS symptoms can include a weak grip, muscle weakness and problems with speech. (Getty Images)

General MND symptoms, according to the NHS, include:

  • weakness in your ankle or leg

  • slurred speech and difficulty swallowing some foods

  • a weak grip

  • muscle cramps and twitches

  • weight loss

  • difficulty stopping yourself crying or laughing

For ALS specifically, symptoms usually involve problems with gripping things with the hands, dropping things and tripping, according to South Tees. Involvement of the muscles controlling speech, swallowing and breathing can also happen, according to The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Other types of MND can affect people in different, or very similar ways, often making it hard to distinguish between them. These include progressive bulbar palsy (PBP), progressive muscular atrophy (PMA), and primary lateral sclerosis (PLS).

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What causes MND?

MND is a rare neurological condition that mainly affects people in their 60s and 70s, but it can affect adults of all ages.

It's caused by a problem with cells in the brain and motor neurones, which gradually stop working over time. However, it's not known why this happens.

Having a close relative with MND, or a related condition like frontotemporal dementia, can sometimes increase your chances of getting it. That said, in most cases, it doesn't run in families.

It's thought that a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a part, making the disease harder to research.

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Treatment for MND

Young woman doing occupational therapy with senior woman, helping her with arm exercises. (Getty Images)
Treatment for ALS might include occupational therapy or physiotherapy. (Getty Images)

While there's no cure for MND as it gradually gets worse over time, treatment can help reduce the effect on you and your life.

Treatments include highly specialised clinics that might involve occupational therapy (aims to improve your ability to do everyday tasks), physiotherapy, a speech and language therapist, a dietitian, a medicine that can slightly slow down the progression, medicines to relieve muscle stiffness and help with saliva problems, emotional support for you and your carer.

While lifespan varies, some do live for many years or even decades with MND.

See a GP if you have early symptoms of MND like muscle weakness, or a close relative has the condition or frontotemporal dementia and you're worried you might be at risk.

For more information, visit the NHS website.

For support you can call the Brain & Spine Foundation on 0808 808 1000.