Muhammad Ali: What Exactly Causes Parkinson’s Disease?

Written by MCJStaff   // January 20, 2014   // 0 Comments

Muhammad Ali punching in a purple shirtMuhammad Ali (


By Marcus Williams -Black

Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweight boxers, as well as one of the most celebrated athletes, in sporting history. Sadly, he was diagnosed with a degenerative disorder called Parkinson’s Disease (PD) in 1984 at the age of 42.

Because his is one of the most high-profile cases of Parkinson’s, there are a lot of questions surrounding his condition. Is boxing responsible? Did repeated blows to his head lead to the disease?

Many people know about Parkinson’s. But most are confused about what exactly causes it.

What Causes PD?

According to the National Parkinson Foundation, 50,000-60,000 new cases of PD are diagnosed each year, adding to the one million people who currently have PD. Most people who get the disease are older than 60, but about 15 percent are diagnosed before age 50.

Although doctors don’t know what exactly causes Parkinson’s, they believe it is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. For example, in about 5 to 10 percent of patients, there is a strong family history of the disease.

The first sign of Parkinson’s disease is usually a tremor in one hand, but over time people with the condition find it harder to move. Their muscles stiffen and in severe cases people will feel locked in position. The condition progresses unpredictably, and leads to other problems such as difficulty sleeping and depression.

Ali began showing symptoms of the disease soon after retiring from the boxing ring in 1981. But his condition was not diagnosed until three years later, in 1984. By that stage he had developed tremors, his speech was slurred, and his body movements had become slow. Currently, Ali is unable to speak in public.

Other possible causes of PD include:

Toxins: Scientists have linked exposure to manganese, carbon monoxide, cyanide and some pesticides and herbicides with a higher Parkinson’s risk [sources: National Parkinson Foundation, Mayo Clinic]. However, most people with the disease haven’t been exposed to these substances.

Viruses: In the early 1900s, people who came down with a form of the encephalitis virus became stuck in a trance-like state in which they couldn’t move or speak. When neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks treated these people with levodopa, the same medication used to treat Parkinson’s, they briefly came “back to life.”

Head Trauma: Researchers have studied whether trauma to the head, such as what Ali experienced consistenly as a professional boxer, may play a role in the development of the disease.

Structural Problems: Strokes and hydrocephalus (fluid buildup in the brain) are two conditions that may lead to an increased risk of PD.


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