The Final Battle: Muhammad Ali and Parkinson’s Disease


In light of the recent news on the passing of Muhammad Ali, I thought it would be appropriate to take the opportunity to focus on the realities of Parkinson’s disease and what you need to know about the illness. While you’re probably familiar that The Champ had been living with the disease since 1984, chances are there’s a lot you still don’t know about Parkinson’s disease (PD).
Appropriately, the news media was filled with his exploits, both in and outside of the ring.
Yet, two of the most significant contributions that Ali made had been either glossed over, or underreported: His defiant stand in opposition of the Vietnam war, and putting a face to Parkinson’s Disease that resonated around the world.
With such an incredibly high profile and public persona, the courage and moral grounding required for a man of African descent to vehemently refused to be inducted into the military was not only unprecedented, but was historic in a most profound way. Much more needs to done to insure that this part of Ali’s legacy remains in the annals of history.
But, equally as significant was the fact that this man spent the last 30-plis years of his life imprisoned by the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. It was interesting to hear Hall of Fame Footballer, Jim Brown proclaim, “he wasn’t considered a hero until he could no longer talk”.

So let’s take a look at Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time. Muhammad Ali was just one of the more than one million people in the US that are living with Parkinson’s 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 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, itself, 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 just 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 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.
His trainer Angelo Dundee and daughter Rasheda indicates that Ali may have boxed with symptoms of Parkinson’s. In some patients, events like head trauma or medications can “unmask” disease that’s still in its earliest stage. So, in Ali’s case, boxing may have contributed to his illness, but genetics was likely a bigger factor.
Like any other disease or medical condition, should we become affected, we must always remember that life can, and must, go on. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder, and although it is not considered to be a fatal disease, symptoms do worsen over time and make life difficult. There are many medications available to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s, although none yet that actually reverse the effects of the disease. It is common for people with Parkinson’s to take a variety of these medications in order to manage the symptoms of the disease. Life expectancy for people with Parkinson’s who receive proper treatment is often about the same as for the general population. The average life expectancy of a black man in America is 75.5 years, Muhammad Ali died 6 months’ shy of his 75th birthday. Not bad; all things considered.

Early detection is the key to reducing complications that can shorten your life. Another good reason for regular checkups with your doctor.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.

Listen to Glenn, every Saturday at 9:00am (EST) on www.900amwurd.com, and Sundays at 8:30am (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com