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Parkinson’s: Ali’s toughest fight

GLENN ELLIS | 6/13/2016, 10:52 a.m. | Updated on 6/20/2016, 11:49 a.m.
Although you were aware Muhammad Ali had been living with Parkinson’s disease since 1984, chances are there’s a lot you ...
Muhammad Ali, center, with the support of sister in-law Marilyn Williams, left, and wife Lonnie, walks through the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's in Phoenix, Arizona, Feb. 22, 2012. Ali lived with Parkinson’s for three decades. David Kadlubowski of The Arizona Republic

(George Curry Media) – Although you were aware Muhammad Ali had been living with Parkinson’s disease since 1984, chances are there’s a lot you still don’t know about it. Let’s correct that now.

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time. Muhammad Ali was just one of the more than 1 million people in the U.S. who are living with the disease. The cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, and there is presently no cure. For certain people, there are treatment options such as medication and surgery to manage its symptoms.

While Parkinson’s itself isn’t considered fatal, people can die from complications of the disease. Complications of the disease were the cause of Ali’s death, not Parkinson’s itself. He died of septic shock after spending five days at an Arizona hospital for what started out as respiratory problems and gradually worsened. We only know that Ali was hospitalized for a “respiratory infection.” Sepsis is the body’s reaction to fight infection that becomes an essentially failed effort. The body’s trying so hard to fight infection and basically just gives out. Septic shock is what happens as a complication of an infection where toxins can initiate a full-blown inflammatory response from the immune system. The CDC reports that more than 1 million cases of sepsis are recorded in the United States each year, and between 28 and 50 percent of people who suffer from sepsis die.

Parkinson’s involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, called neurons. It is a very slowly progressive neurodegenerative condition affecting multiple circuits in the brain. The Mayo Clinic describes Parkinson’s as, “a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.”

During the early stages, the person’s face begins to show little, or no, expression, and the arms no longer swing when the person walks. As the disease progresses, tremors and shaking becomes more and more pronounced, and what speech remains is slurred or becomes very soft, almost mumbling. Parkinson’s patients also experience non-motor symptoms, which studies have shown may be even more disabling. These symptoms may include depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction.

The general consensus from the scientific and the medical community (and many of his fans and detractors) is that Ali’s condition was the result of the continued pounding to his head during his career as a boxer. They believe that repeated hits to the head might contribute to Parkinson’s.

Comparing the brain to a squishy ball, when it’s hit extremely hard, the ball bounces against the skull. About three to 12 days later, massive inflammation follows and the brain is flooded with proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s results from a loss of brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine. After inflammation, these dopamine neurons are much more fragile, and more likely to become injured by other things, such as regular aging. But, the scientific evidence points to a genetic predisposition. According to several neurological experts familiar with Ali’s symptoms and the course of his disease, they conclude that they were also consistent with a genetic form of Parkinson’s.