What you should know about Parkinson’s, the disease Muhammad Ali fought for 32 years

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali battled Parkinson’s disease for more than three decades. (Photo by Cliff via Creative Commons)

PHOENIX – Muhammad Ali, the boxing great and Paradise Valley resident who died Friday at age 74, lived with Parkinson’s for more than three decades.

Ali, Michael J. Fox and Johnny Cash are among the more recognizable faces of Parkinson’s, but up to 10 million people are believed to be living with the disease worldwide, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Ali was diagnosed in 1984, at age 42, just three years after he retired from boxing. He continued to build his legacy as a humanitarian and Parkinson’s spokesperson, eventually lending his name in 1997 to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at the Barrow Neurological Institute. Researchers and doctors work toward advancing treatment of the disease and providing outreach and support to those affected.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s, named after James Parkinson, an English surgeon who was the first to diagnose the disease, is a chronic, non-fatal neurological condition that primarily affects a patient’s movement and/or balance.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s are caused by a decrease in dopamine – the neuron that sends instructions from your brain to the rest of your body – as cells gradually die, according to the Barrow Neurological Institute. The condition is progressive, and worsens with age.

What causes Parkinson’s?

Anyone can get Parkinson’s but it is more prevalent among men and people older than 50. What causes it is still a mystery, making it impossible to predict, though it is frequently found in people exposed to certain toxins, like the pesticides used in farming. Most researchers believe it to be the result of genetic predisposition combined with an unknown environmental factor, but only two out of 10 people diagnosed have a hereditary history of the disease.

Experts are still debating whether repeated incidence of head trauma, as seen in Muhammad Ali and other professional athletes, can lead to Parkinson’s.

What are the symptoms?

Parkinson’s is most commonly known by its tell-tale tremors, slow movement and lowered voice, which begin to appear on one side of the body. People may also suffer decreased facial expression and lack of mobility on the affected side, similar to some stroke victims. In addition to the outward signs, Parkinson’s can cause debilitating mental problems like anxiety and depression, cognitive impairment and, in a quarter of patients, dementia, according to the foundation.

Is there a cure?

Not yet. Researchers are trying to find ways to better understand the disease, which could lead to a cure. Medication and surgery can reduce symptoms to give a patient more independence and long-term quality of life.

Physical therapy and routine exercise can increase mobility, decrease stiffness and even reduce depression. Dance for Parkinson’s Disease is a ballet class offered to Parkinson’s patients in collaboration with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.