Muhammad Ali became one of the most recognizable people in the world. His recognition eclipsed the sports world and extended into politics, religion and human rights. His contribution to neurologic sciences may also garner recognition.
Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984 at age 42. Some experts believe he displayed some early signs of the illness at the time of his last fight against Larry Holmes in 1980. Typically, PD is diagnosed in an older population but a small percentage can be seen in younger adults.
PD is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily affects motor function.
It is the result of a chemical imbalance in an area of the brain known as the basal ganglia. These structures are responsible for the synthesis of dopamine. Dopamine is crucial to allowing for smooth movements. Treatment is based on replacing dopamine with L-dopa, a drug administered in a pill form.
The principal features of PD are a tremor that is most recognizable at rest, a slow, shuffled gait with susceptibility to falling as well as muscular rigidity. Approximately a million Americans suffer from PD and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Motor activities to maintain motor function include swimming, yoga, ballroom dancing and ironically, boxing workouts.
Ali’s ability as a high-performance athlete made the loss of motor function particularly striking.
The goal of a boxing contest is to neurologically impair your opponent. Despite this, most neurologists believe that repeated head blows did not play a significant role in Ali’s condition.
Ali approached his disease with uncommon fortitude and acceptance to the point where he set an example for anyone who may be faced with a neurodegenerative disease.
Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at email@example.com