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Parkinson’s: The Disease That Killed Muhammad Ali

Say the word ‘Parkinson’s disease’ (PD), and it will most likely send fear down most people’s spines.

This disease cost the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali at the age of 74, decades after developing the degenerative brain disease

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali

However, for those who have the disease and have to struggle on with its daily effects in their bodies – the important thing to do is to keep fighting back.

According to Free Malaysia Today, PD is a disease of the nervous system. It generally causes the muscles to become stiff (mengeras) and the body to tremble (menggeletar). As a person gets older, this will gradually gets worse.

According to a consultant neurologist at Gleneagles Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Mak Choon Soon, it is estimated that there are about 15,000 Malaysians afflicted by it. It is also found to be slightly more prevalent among men than women.

“It is a disease affecting the elderly where around one per cent of the people over 60 years globally would likely be affected by this disease,” the Borneo Post reports.


A person with PD has abnormally low dopamine levels. Dopamine-producing cells, known as dopaminergic neurons (a type of nerve cell) in the substantia nigra part of the brain have died. According to Medical News Today,  experts do not know why this happens.

When dopamine levels are too low, individuals will find it harder to get things done and to control their movements.

Dopamine levels drop progressively in patients with the disease, so their symptoms gradually become more  and more severe. Dopamine is involved in the sending of messages to the part of the brain that controls coordination and movement.

PD symptoms usually develop gradually and are mild at first.

There are many different symptoms associated with the disease. Some of the more common symptoms are described below.

UK’s National Health Service explains there are three main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that  affect physical movement:

  • tremor – shaking, which usually starts in the hand or arm and is more likely to occur when the limb is relaxed and resting .
  • slowness of movement (bradykinesia) – where physical movements are much slower than normal, which can make everyday tasks difficult and can result in a recognisable  slow, shuffling walk with very small steps
  • muscle stiffness (rigidity) – stiffness and tension in the muscles, which can make it difficult to move around and make facial expressions, and can result in painful muscle cramps (dystonia)

However, the order in which these develop and their severity is different for each individual.


Some health complications may arise due to the disease. Dysphagia, difficulties in swallowing and chewing more commonly affects people during the later stages of the disease.

Sometimes depression or anxiety may occur before other PD symptoms appear. According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, USA, it is thought that up to 50% of patients with this disease may experience a mood disturbance at some point during their illness.

Other complications due to PD are sexual dysfunction, patients having trouble falling asleep at night and urinary retention (tidak lawas buang air kecil).


No known treatment can stop or reverse the breakdown of nerve cells that causes PD. But there are many treatments that can help with the symptoms and improve patient’s quality of life.

The treatments are:

Medicines, such as levodopa and dopamine agonists. This is the most common treatment for PD.

Home treatment. There are many steps you can take at home to make dealing with the symptoms of PD easier, such as getting regular exercise and practicing a healthy diet.

Surgery. Brain surgery, for example deep brain stimulation (DBS), may be considered when medicine fails to control symptoms of PD or causes severe or disabling side effects.

Another celebrity that has been diagnosed with PD is Michael J. Fox, star of the classic “Back to the Future” film series. He was told he had 10 years left to work. That was 26 years ago, in 1991, when the actor was just 30 years old.

After he told the world about the condition, Fox created The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Today, the foundation and Fox are actively seeking a cure to the disease. “Once I made my diagnosis known, it has been a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous privilege,” Fox said.

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