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Despite new treatments, cause of Parkinson's Disease remains a mystery

Posted June 15

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— Last week, people around the world paid tribute to boxing great Muhammed Ali. While he fought many battles inside the ring, he also fought Parkinson's Disease for 32 years.

When Ali's fast talking and fast stepping style in the ring slowed down, fans wondered what was happening to their hero.

The diagnosis came in 1984, when Ali was 42 years old.

"Parkinson's Disease is a chronic, progressive neurologic disorder," said Dr. Bradley Robottom, a neurologist with Raleigh Neurology.

Robottom said the average age for onset of Parkinson's is 62. Researchers say environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides, may play a role, and that 15 percent of sufferers have a clear family history.

Many people assumed that the punishment boxers endure to the head must play a role.

"It is not so clear that it would cause the type of Parkinson's disease that (Ali) apparently had," Robottom said. "Because he was diagnosed relatively early in life, and then had a clear progressive form of Parkinson's that responds to Parkinson's meds."

Plus, Robottom says that many boxers and football players do no develop Parkinson's. He believes Ali's case was likely genetic, but there is no test to know for sure.

As Ali's disease progressed, he suffered symptoms with tremors, rigid muscles and a shuffling gait.

There are treatments, such as deep brain stimulation, to help patients function.

"All of the medications are designed to help the symptoms of Parkinson's. We don't currently have anything that will slow the disease down or stop the disease, although those medications are currently being researched, so there is always room for hope," Robottom said.

According to doctors, most patients die from something other than Parkinson's Disease.

Ali died from sepsis, an infection in the blood stream likely related to pneumonia due to problems swallowing.

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