April 20, 2009 -- Physicist Stephen Hawking, the author of books including A Brief History of Time, is said to be seriously ill and hospitalized in Cambridge, England.
Hawking, who is 67 years old and has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), is "very ill" with a chest infection that he's had for several weeks and is undergoing tests at Addenbrooke's Hospital, according to a Cambridge University spokesperson quoted in media reports.
Details about Hawking's infection haven't been made public, but infection is a risk for people like Hawking who rely on ventilators for a long period of time in order to breathe, notes Jonathan D. Glass, MD, neurology professor at Emory University and director of the Emory University ALS Center.
Ventilators provide "direct access from the outside world into your lungs that bypasses [the] mouth and tonsils ... and so patients who are on chronic ventilators have a tendency to get pneumonia. That has to be something that is watched very carefully," Glass tells WebMD.
"Some of the bugs that can get into ventilator patients can be more serious and harder to fight than the standard ones that you'd have from regular pneumonia, just because you're chronically ventilated and you're chronically exposed to more bacteria directly through what's called a tracheostomy," says Glass.
"If he's got pneumonia, and it's with a bug that is sensitive to antibiotics, he should be able to be treatable," says Glass, who isn't one of Hawking's doctors.
ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, is an incurable, progressive, degenerative neurological disorder. For reasons that are not understood, the nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement gradually deteriorate. As a result, muscles waste away, leading to paralysis and death.
Hawking was diagnosed with ALS more than 40 years ago, when he was 21 years old.
"The age at which he was diagnosed -- he was young, though I've seen younger. But it is unusual," says Glass.
As for Hawking's relative longevity with ALS, Glass notes that Hawking has been on a ventilator for more than a decade.
"Most people would have died, but he's being kept alive with the ventilation and all the gadgetry that he has attached to him, which is fine," says Glass.
Glass adds that while ALS literature often mentions typical survival in the range of two to five years, he's seen exceptions.
"I've had patients who I lose in six months, and there are other ones that I've been taking care of for a dozen years," says Glass. "What I say to all my patients is everybody's got their own brand of the disease. Everybody's different. And so it's really hard to really predict what's going to happen with any individual person."
ALS only affects nerve cells that control a wide range of things including limb movements, swallowing, and even some aspects of breathing.
But ALS doesn't affect the senses and thinking processes, and it's usually not accompanied by physical pain.
Glass says Hawking's life shows "how the mind and the brain can remain very active and very productive, even when the physical body is falling apart."