Muhammad Ali will be remembered for a great many things in and out of the boxing ring. In addition to those things, we at the UF Health Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration were impressed with how he lived with Parkinson disease and did so in such a public way. One example would be his severely shaking left arm while he solidly held the Olympic torch in his right arm.
When Ali passed away this weekend, our co-director Dr. Michael Okun was interviewed several times and he was able to speak both as a Parkinson disease expert and as someone who knew Muhammad Ali and his family. As you may recall, Rasheda Ali spoke at a Grand Opening event we had in May 2011. In a press release from the National Parkinson Foundation, Dr. Okun said:
“While Muhammad Ali is best known as one of the greatest athletes of our time, we will always remember him as one of the strongest fighters in the Parkinson’s community,” said Michael S. Okun, MD, National Medical Director of the National Parkinson Foundation.
“The world owes him a great debt for raising awareness of the disease. He worked tirelessly to inspire people to better and more meaningful lives. Ali brought the critically needed international attention to Parkinson’s disease and this awareness served as the catalyst for advances in education, care and research. He lived as an example of a man who was not for a single day of his life defined by his disease.”
Dr. Okun appeared on MSNBC Saturday to discuss Parkinson disease and Ali. Here are some quotes from that interview:
“If you remember in the history of Muhammad Ali, there were people giving him all sorts of crazy concoctions and things and medications early on. There’s a small, non-vocal group of experts who provided care and helped to advise the family over many years.”
“He was never worried about himself in the Parkinson, he was always worried about you and other people”.
“Whether his meds were working or they were not working, when the moment called, when it was time to light the torch, he could do it and he transcended his disease.”
Other interviews about Muhammad Ali:
“His involvement with Parkinson’s disease was really transformational for the field. Before Ali, there wasn’t that much known about Parkinson’s disease.”
“It’s asymmetric, it responds to dopamine, it progresses over many years. Some can go many years or decades with the symptoms, lead good lives, and have a slowly progressive asymmetric disorder. That’s pretty much what Ali had, and he did a remarkable job living with it. We just have to appreciate the fact that without more data, I don’t think it would be responsible to conclude that [his condition] was due to getting hit in the head multiple times.”
“While Muhammad Ali is best known as one of the greatest athletes of our time, we will always remember him as one of the strongest fighters in the Parkinson’s community.”
“This has all the hallmarks of Parkinson disease, what we call idiopathic or ‘regular garden variety’ Parkinson disease . . . Now certainly, when you get hit in the head that many times, it’s very clear that you can develop other neurological symptoms such as slurring of the speech and other things.”