Muhammad Ali’s death raises more awareness about Parkinson’s disease

By Frederick H. Lowe

Muhammad Ali, the late great world heavyweight boxing champion, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, is being praised by some in the medical community for raising public awareness about the debilitating disorder.

Ali punching
Ali is still punching Parkinson’s disease.

But there are still unanswered questions about how prevalent disease is in the black community because a complete study that meets scientific research standards has yet to be done, according to an article published by National Medical Association.

Ali a champ for bringing awareness of Parkinson’s disease

Ali, 74, who died Friday from septic shock, suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, for 32 years. Physicians diagnosed the three-time champion with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, three years after he retired.

“We are saddened by the loss of Muhammad Ali, who faced Parkinson’s disease with great courage and tenacity. In making his diagnosis public, he provided hope for millions of others and helped the cause immeasurably. We celebrate his extraordinary life and contributions to the cause and send our deepest condolences to his wife Lonnie and his family. In all areas of life, he truly was ‘the Champ’ and ‘the greatest,” said Robin Elliott, president of the Parkinson Disease Foundation, which is based in New York.

In 1997, Ali and his wife cofounded the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Ariz., to provide comprehensive care for those living with disease.

“The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute mourns the loss of Muhammad Ali, whose generosity, courage, fighting spirit and dedication to helping others are the pillars of the Center,” officials said.  (See video below).

Other celebrities who are suffering or have suffered from Parkinson’s disease are actor Michael J. Fox and actor/comedian Robin Williams. Williams, 63, had been diagnosed with Parkinson disease three months before he committed suicide on Aug. 11, 2014.

A debilitating disease with no cure

The disease affects a person’s ability to walk and to speak. Symptoms includes loss of balance, trembling hands and slurred speech. Approximately 1 million people in the United States suffer from disease, according to the Parkinson Disease Foundation. Men are more likely to suffer from Parkinson’s disease than women. There is no cure for the disease.

The Journal of the National Medical Association, an African-American physicians group, published a study about the disease in a 2004 article, titled “Prevalence of Parkinson’s Disease in Populations of African Ancestry:  A Review.”

Researchers reviewed 20 studies. They included two door-to-door studies that relied on questionnaires. Another reviewed outpatient records of a large health maintenance organization and diagnosis of death certificates.

“In the aggregate, these studies suggest Parkinson’s disease may be less frequent among African Americans than among Caucasians, although the well-designed study showed only a statistically insignificant reduction in the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease among African Africans,” the National Medical Association reported.  “Although an apparently lower disease frequency among people of African origin may have a basis in the pathobiology of the disease, nearly all of the studies were vulnerable to a variety of ascertainment biases, and many lacked stringent applications of diagnostic criteria applied by specialists trained in movement disorders.”

The article concluded that more study is needed to determine if reported ethnic differences in disease prevalence are real.

Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, physicians can help patients cope with the symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health.

A mystery disease, possibly caused by the environment

What causes Parkinson’s disease is a mystery despite decades of research.

“Many experts think the disease is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, which may vary from person to person,” according to the Parkinson Disease Foundation. “In some people genetic factors may play a role; in others, illness, an environmental toxin or other events may contribute to Parkinson’s disease. Scientists have identified aging as an important risk factor; there is a two to four percent risk for Parkinson’s disease among people over 50 compared with one to two percent in the general population.”

Some researchers suggest Parkinson’s disease may be caused by exposure to environmental toxins, such as pesticides and well water.



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