This past week on June 3, 2016, Muhammed Ali, the legendary fighter who captured the inspiration of generations of Americans with his winning spirit, lost his battle with Parkinson’s disease and what is now thought to be originated by post concussive injuries received from blows to the head from his years as a prize fighter.
Ali, who was born as Cassius Clay on Jan 17, 1942, lived until the age of 74. However, the past years since 1984 when he was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s have been a constant fight against the symptoms of this raging degenerative disease.
Ali’s symptoms which began showing as early as 1981 before diagnosis and were seen by the world in 1996 when he carried the olympic torch with visible physical difficulty, have been an area of controversy for the fighter who retired from boxing at age 39, just 3 years before his announced diagnosis.
Muhammed Ali suffered from tremors, slurred speech, and difficulty with movement and coordination which became stiff and slow. He was prescribed medications that alleviated most of his symptoms initally, but the course of Parkinson’s is uncertain and in the case of Ali, he became unable to speak in public in the later years of his life, which was again witnessed by the public when he attended president Obama’s inaugural ceremony in 2009.
Although many celebrities have suffered from this disease such as Michael J Fox, Johnny Cash, and Billy Graham, it has now been more of a focus in the Sports industry where athletes have contracted neurological disorders as to whether these are triggered or even caused by athletic injuries from the field, especially head injuries including concussions, which until now were treated as mild injuries that healed and could later be ignored.
Sports players such as Al Arbor who was a National Hockey League player and coach, Kirk Gibson, American baseball player and manager, and Freddie Roach, boxer and trainer, are just a few of the list of athletes diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
However, Muhammed Ali’s sports and cultural legacy as an activitist and inspiration to Americans of color has put his life in the spotlight as the world’s most widely recognized Parkinson’s patient. This is good for the patients and their families and caregivers who battle daily with the uncertainties of this disease that rob their functional and cognitive abilities over time.
Stanley Fahn, MD, the renowned neurologist who diagnosed Muhammed Ali also continued to closely follow and document the progression of his condition for the next 22 years, which provided data that Ali’s symptoms were not caused by boxing, but by the disease itself, however, there has yet to be a complete study on the effects of repeated and severe concussions and other forms of head trauma in their role connecting them to the disease.
Ali’s daughter Rasheda Ali-Walsh has partnered with the American Academy of Neurology to deliver public service announcements that educate people about Parkinson’s Disease and its symptoms to increase awareness so the disease can be diagnosed as early as possible, which can lead to better outcomes with early treatment. Ali-Walsh is a passionate advocate to help people with Parkinson’s live productive lives and improve their quality of life at any stage of the disease. She has been able to launch proactively from the strong convictions of her father who battled this disease with as much vigor as he fought with in the ring during his career.
For an inspirational review of his life, there is an article about Muhammed Ali’s multifaceted career as an athlete, cultural activist, and advocate in the war on Parkinson’s and in the American Academy of Neurology’s magazine, Neurology Now, which reaches out to patients, families and caregivers facing the daily demands of neurological issues.