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Inside Muhammad Ali’s Battle with Parkinson’s Disease

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On June 3, 2016, we lost a legendary athlete and torchbearer for Parkinson’s disease. At the time of his death, Muhammad Ali was 74, having battled the disorder for 32 years. Aside from his legacy in the ring, Ali brought awareness to a disease that affects nearly a million Americans, their loved ones, and Parkinson’s caregivers.

Double-Edged Sword

Ali’s Olympic status as a world-class boxer came with a price. Neurologists suspect that repeated blows to his head increased Ali’s susceptibility to PD. A 2013 analysis of head trauma studies found that people who suffer a concussion are 57 percent more likely to incur PD versus those without a head injury.

Role of Dopamine

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that governs muscle activity, enabling smooth, coordinated movement. When the cells that produce dopamine die, the symptoms of PD become apparent. In most instances, the exact reason for cellular deterioration is unknown. However, head injuries can damage the substantia nigra, the brain region containing dopamine-generating cells.

Genetic Predisposition

In Ali’s case, neurologists believe that genes were also contributory. This is the viewpoint of Dr. Michael Okun, Medical Director of the National Parkinson Foundation and long-time friend to Ali. Whereas the average age of onset is 60, Ali was diagnosed at 42. Predisposing genes increase the risk of developing PD earlier in life. 

Retirement

Ten weeks before a 1980 boxing match, a Mayo Clinic medical report described a small hole in the outer layer of Ali’s brain. Accompanying this finding were symptoms of hand tingling and slurred speech. Ali wisely retired in 1981. Dr. Okun believes that if Ali had continued boxing, he would have risked further brain damage. Three years after ending his boxing career, Ali was diagnosed with PD. By that time, he showed evidence of tremors and slow body movement.

Symptoms

The course of PD varies among individuals but typically begins with a tremor on one side of the body, occurring at rest. Other common signs include:

  • Balance deficit
  • Declining memory
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Slowed movement
  • Shuffling gait
  • Loss of smell
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor sleep
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Diminished facial expression

Ali had many of the above symptoms, yet never complained. Although his body deteriorated, his cognitive function remained intact. His physician, Dr. Dennis Cope, stated that throughout the course of the disease, Ali retained the ability to think clearly.

PD Treatment

Ali’s primary treatment consisted of taking the drug, levodopa. The medication alleviated the worst of Ali’s symptoms. Regular exercise also enabled Ali to live an active life for more than two decades after the initial diagnosis. Deep brain stimulation can also reduce symptoms. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, this treatment involves implantation of electrodes that emit programmed impulses to control movement. However, Ali did not receive this surgical intervention. Brain stimulation is not effective when PD is caused by head trauma. 

Ongoing Contributions

In 1994, Ali established Celebrity Fight Night, an annual fundraising event that has continued for the past 22 years. The gala is attended by professional athletes and celebrities from throughout the country. Highlights of the evening are performances by leading musical talent and a live auction. To date, Celebrity Fight Night has raised $118 million for PD research.

In 1997, Ali founded the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The Center provides medical care and resources for PD patients in the Southwest. Among the services available are occupational therapy, rehabilitative exercise, and gait training.

As the disease progresses, managing everyday tasks becomes more challenging. If your senior loved could use additional support at home, reach out to Home Care Assistance of New Hampshire. Our experienced Parkinson’s caregivers help with a wide variety of everyday tasks, provide mobility support and safety monitoring, and offer companionship to help seniors maintain a dignified lifestyle in the comfort of home. For more information, please call (603) 471-3004 and speak with a trusted Care Manager today.