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From Ali to Ozzy, What You Need to Know About Parkinson’s Disease

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Martha Michael

What You Need to Know About Parkinson’s Disease

Conditions such as breast cancer and disordered eating have had their closeup because of the openness of famous people who are willing to share their struggles.

Other than the inspiration from actor Michael J. Fox, you may be less likely to know some famous people with Parkinson’s disease because its degenerative nature makes symptoms increasingly noticeable and a little bit hard to watch. As well, those with the disease often retreat from public life. But Parkinson’s affects about 500,000 Americans.

Muhammad Ali was among those suffering from Parkinson’s disease when he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, one of the most visible examples globally of what the disease can do to a body.

Though there are sources of funding for continued research, its cause remains unclear.

What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

A degenerative brain condition that’s typically associated with age, Parkinson’s disease is somewhat mysterious. Originally referred to as “shaking palsy” when described by English physician James Parkinson in 1817, it is marked by physical instability causing involuntary movements. According to the Stanford Medical website, it’s a neurological disorder resulting from a loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells. Neurons fire out of control and various parts of the body lose control of their movement.

What Are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

According to an article by the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can affect physical movement, the loss of senses, ability to think, and mental health. Some side effects of the disease involve your autonomic nervous system resulting in urinary incontinence, constipation, and sexual dysfunction.

Most people are familiar with the loss of muscle control, but other symptoms include:

  • Blinking less often
  • Drooling
  • Cramped hands
  • Dysphagia, or trouble swallowing
  • Hypophonia, or soft speech
  • Hypomimia, or no change in facial expression
  • Anosmia, a loss of sense of smell
  • Sleep problems

While the stages of Parkinson’s disease can unfold over years, or even decades, they continue to worsen because there’s no cure. Scientists Margaret Hoehn and Melvin Yahr outlined a staging system in 1967 to describe the onset of symptoms.

Part 1: Non-Motor Experiences

When early symptoms appear and you begin your battle with Parkinson’s disease, mental health can decline as you face the grieving process. Many patients suffer from anxiety, depression, dementia, and other health issues as well.

Part 2: Motor Experiences

Your provider assesses changes in your movement. They measure the ability to eat, chew, swallow, dress and bathe yourself.

Part 3: Motor Examination

Medical professionals can monitor changes to your health by studying facial expressions, speech, and gait, as well as other factors. They can note the patient’s muscle stiffness, speed, balance, and the presence of tremors to detect signs of the disease.

Part 4: Motor Complications

During this phase your provider determines the impact of the disease on your life. The duration of your symptoms are taken into account, as well as the extent to which it challenges your everyday function.

Who Is Most Likely to Be Affected by Parkinson’s Disease?

Medical researchers get a better idea who is at greatest risk when they look at the cause of the disease. Two factors play a role in the onset of Parkinson’s disease: genes and environmental triggers. Though it’s rare, gene variations can cause several members of a family to show signs of the disease. One of the highest risk factors for contracting PD is exposure to toxins.

Research shows changes in the brains of patients with PD, but it’s unclear why they occur. “Lewy bodies” are microscopic clumps found in the brain of people with Parkinson’s disease. Researchers are studying these substances to learn more about the causes. Scientists have found Lewy bodies containing the natural protein alpha-synuclein in the spinal fluid of people who developed Parkinson’s disease. The clumped proteins are impossible for cells to break down.

People with a higher risk of developing PD include:

  • Older adults
  • Males
  • Those related to someone with PD
  • Exposure to toxic substances

According to the National Institutes of Health, the risk of developing Parkinson’s is twice as high in men, but women tend to have a higher mortality rate and experience a faster progression of the disease.

How Can Chiropractic Affect the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

In addition to treating painful symptoms of the disease, there’s ongoing research regarding the effects of chiropractic care on patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The National Institutes of Health cites an article in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine outlining the results of chiropractic care for patients with Parkinson’s disease. In the early stages, PD is often treated with pharmaceuticals such as dopaminergic replacement, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, dopamine agonists, or amantadine. Medications become less effective over time because patients tend to develop a tolerance to them. Deep brain stimulation is used to slow the cognitive and motor decline in the late stages of the disease.

Several non-pharmaceutical treatments have been effective for patients including:

  • Occupational therapy
  • Exercise
  • Speech therapy
  • Chiropractic manipulation

Some patients receiving chiropractic care have experienced a decrease in tremors and improvement in daily living function. Multimodal treatment, including manual therapies, can reduce secondary complications such as joint pain and offer improvement to neurological and musculoskeletal function including:

  • Balance
  • Motor strength
  • Joint movement
  • Postural alignment
  • Orthopedic deformities

What Can Family Members Do for Someone With Parkinson’s Disease?

It’s challenging to be the caregiver for a person with the disease, but as a loved one, there are steps you can take to offer your support, according to an article by the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Become Educated

Learning more about Parkinson’s disease can make it easier to cope with the degenerative symptoms, though experiences vary from patient to patient. Watch for symptoms affecting both movement and non-movement symptoms. One good resource is the Foundation’s web page Parkinson’s Disease Frequently Asked Questions.

Give the Caregiver Breaks

A visit from family members for just a few hours can give the patient’s partner or caregiver time to seek out some self-care or just get a break from the tension. You can also offer your help by grocery shopping for the household or doing yard work. The Foundation also has an article about how to care from afar.

Chat With the Patient

From Facetime to in-person opportunities, it can help to spend time talking to caregivers or to the person in your life who’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It may feel good to them to share stories or offer their opinions because they have less and less connection to others.

Get Involved With the Community

You can show support by participating in fundraisers or join a local support group to gain understanding about what your loved one with Parkinson’s is going through. You also have access to resources when you connect to others facing the same challenges.

Despite the sometimes disturbing experience watching someone struggle with its symptoms, there are brave victims of Parkinson’s disease using their fame to bring it into the limelight such as award-winning actor Alan Alda and musician Ozzy Osbourne.

Michael J. Fox was only 29 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, and in many ways has been the face of the disease to a generation since he went public in 1998. But there are others, too, who have been diagnosed while in the spotlight: Rev. Billy Graham in 1993 and then-attorney general Janet Reno in 1995, as well as singers Linda Ronstadt (2012) and Neil Diamond (2018), Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton (2008), film critic Leonard Maltin (2015), Rev. Jesse Jackson (2015), comedians Billy Connolly (2012) and Richard Lewis (2021), and NBA veteran Brian Grant (2008) at age 36.

The efforts made through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the Brian Grant Foundation, continue to shed light and attention on the disease. Countless medical problems receive funding for research every year, but there are many questions about Parkinson’s disease that remain unanswered. That’s why it’s so important to get the pain and suffering of patients out of the dark.

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