This review examines the commonly held premise that, apart from the Western Pacific forms, motor neuron disease (MND), has a uniform worldwide distribution in space and time; the methodological problems in studies of MND incidence; and directions for future epidemiological research. MND is more common in men at all ages. Age-specific incidence rises steeply into the seventh decade but the incidence in the very elderly is uncertain. A rise in mortality from MND over recent decades has been demonstrated wherever this has been examined and may be real rather than due to improved case ascertainment. Comparison of incidence studies in different places is complicated by non-standardised methods of case ascertainment and diagnosis but there appear to be differences between well studied populations. In developed countries in the northern hemisphere there is a weak positive correlation between standardised, age-specific incidence and distance from the equator. There is now strong evidence for an environmental factor as the cause of the Western Pacific forms of MND. A number of clusters of sporadic MND have been reported from developed countries, but no single agent identified as responsible.
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