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Michael J. Fox Remembers What It Was Like to First Get Parkinson's, and Here's What to Watch For

Learn the signs of Parkinson’s and who is at risk. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

For the last 22 years, actor Michael J. Fox has used his voice to raise awareness and an astounding 1.5 billion dollars for Parkinson's disease–a condition he was diagnosed with at just the age of 29-years-old.  Last month, Fox accepted the Academy Awards' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award , which recognizes an, "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry," the Academy's website states.  During his speech, the Family Ties star reflected on his journey from high school drop out to an award-winning actor. "I did leave high school in the 11th grade, sold my guitar and moved to L.A.," he told the audience. "…I told my history teacher of my plan and he said, 'Fox, you're not gonna be cute forever.' I had no idea how to respond to that, so I said, 'Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough.' It turns out we were both right."

It didn't take long before his career took off and he made it in Hollywood, but then Fox received the shattering news he had Parkinson's. "I was told I only had 10 years left to work," Fox said. "That was sh***y. The hardest part of my diagnosis was grappling with the certainty of the diagnosis and the uncertainty of the situation," he continued. "I only knew that it would get worse. The diagnosis was definite. The progress was indefinite and uncertain."

The Back to the Future icon admitted he couldn't accept the diagnosis and kept his condition quiet from most people. He said, "Then I entered into seven years of denial, trying to make sense of it all. The kid who left Canada, convinced that he would make anything happen just by working hard and by believing, now had a tall order in front of him," Fox said. "I told very few people. And they kept my secret."

In 1998 he revealed publicly he had Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes tremors and motor weakness, and to his surprise. received a lot of support–more than he was expecting.  "What happened next was remarkable: The outpouring of support from the public at large and the beautiful reaction from all of my peers in the entertainment business. All of you, thank you. … It was transformative. It struck me that everything I had been given – success, my life with Tracy, my family – had prepared me for this profound opportunity and responsibility. It was a gift."

In 2000, Fox launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation that's committed to finding a cure and has funded "more than 20 early-stage therapeutic programs, which have attracted follow-on funding from venture capital, pharmaceutical or government funders for continuing development," according to the foundation's website. Although Fox has made a big impact, he said, "there was nothing heroic about what I did. I am so grateful to all these people and thousands more who will make a world without Parkinson's a reality," he said. "…It's humbling in the deepest way to stand here today and accept your kindness and approbation when truly the effort is being driven by others so deserving of this attention." Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What to Know About Parkinson's Disease

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Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who has never treated Michael J. Fox tells us, "People should be aware that Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological condition that can lead to a wide variety of physical and mental health issues. It is commonly caused by a deficiency in the neurotransmitter dopamine, though there are many other potential contributing factors. Some of the common symptoms experienced by those with Parkinson's include trembling or tremors, difficulty with initiating movement, speech impediments such as slurred speech and soft voice, stiffness of the limbs, and balance difficulties. Fortunately, there are medications and therapies available to help manage symptoms and treat Parkinson's disease. Nevertheless, it is important for people to understand more about this condition so they can recognize signs early and make sure that those affected get the necessary support."

According to the MJFF, "Researchers believe that Parkinson's is caused by a combination of factors. If a continuum existed, with genetic causes at one end and environmental causes at the other, people with Parkinson's would fall at many different places. Some cases may be due more to genetics, and others more influenced by environmental factors. We know aging plays a role, too. Scientists are working hard to understand the triggers and the cascade of cellular changes that lead to Parkinson's. Knowing more about the cause could help researchers develop treatments to stop or even prevent the disease."

2

It's Not Common to be Diagnosed at a Young Age

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Dr. Mitchell says, "Michael J Fox was unfortunately diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at just the age of 29, putting him amongst a unique group of people. He is one of the estimated 10 million people in the world who suffer from this disease. Additionally, approximately 90,000 Americans are newly diagnosed each year. Even though it is certainly not common for someone so young to be affected by the condition, Fox isn't alone in his struggles; an estimated 1-2 % of adults over the age of 60 are living with Parkinson's.

Parkinson's Disease usually affects individuals between the ages of 40 and 70, although factors such as genetics can speed up or slow down this process significantly. Therefore it is likely that Michael J Fox was part of a minority when diagnosed at such a young age. Thankfully, since being diagnosed, he has used his platform to raise awareness and fund research into treatment and potential cures for this debilitating illness."

3

How Michael J. Fox is Beating the Odds

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Dr. Mitchell explains, "The typical lifespan of someone affected by Parkinson's Disease is around 8-14 years after diagnosis. However, advances in medical science over the past decades have led to an overall improvement in patient care and consequently enabled them to live longer than they used to. Michael J. Fox himself was diagnosed with the disease more than thirty years ago, but his remarkable success in managing it has allowed him to continue living a fulfilling life all this time. He is probably one of the most inspiring role models for people dealing with this condition as he continues to help promote awareness and raise funds for treatment options and research for a cure. Despite having been told he wouldn't make it very far when first diagnosing him, Michael J. Fox has shown us that longevity is still possible with diligent care and proper medication."

The Parkinson's Foundation states, "While symptoms and disease progression are unique to each person, knowing the typical stages of Parkinson's can help you cope with changes as they occur. Some people experience the changes over 20 years or more. Others find the disease progresses more quickly. It is difficult to accurately predict the progression of Parkinson's. Following a diagnosis, many people experience a good response to medications, such as levodopa. This optimal timeframe can last many years and varies for everyone."

4

How Parkinson's Can Affect Daily Life

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Dr. Mitchell says, "Parkinson's Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that can greatly impact the activities of daily living. This is due to the tremors and difficulty in movement patients experience. These symptoms impair the ability of people living with Parkinson's by restricting their daily physical tasks, such as getting dressed and preparing meals, as well as making it difficult for them to maintain their balance. The unpredictable and progressive nature of Parkinson's can also create feelings of anxiety which can further exacerbate impaired mobility. Additionally, greater muscle weakness and rigidity may occur – both leading to an increased risk of falls. Furthermore, fatigue experienced by those living with Parkinson's makes it difficult for them to perform tasks that require long-term mental focus or concentration.

It is typically characterized by tremors, slow movement, rigidity, postural instability, and loss of balance. The most common treatment for this condition is the medication that can help with the physical symptoms of the disease. However, the psychological impact of Parkinson's Disease should not be ignored. This condition can cause depression, anxiety, memory loss, and changes in mood. These issues can dramatically limit a person's ability to engage in day-to-day activities and can make it more difficult to enjoy life. In addition to seeking medical treatment for physical symptoms, it is also important for those with Parkinson's Disease to have strong support networks in place in order to help them cope with the psychological effects of the condition."

5

Risk Factors

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According to Dr. Mitchell, "Parkinson's disease is a formidable foe – it appears seemingly randomly, affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year. Unfortunately, it can strike anyone at any age, though its prevalence increases with age and is more common in those over 65. Additionally, men seem to be more prone than women to developing Parkinson's. Aside from age or gender, risk factors may include living or working in an environment that has pesticides or other dangerous chemicals, family history, head trauma, and drug use. Research is ongoing when it comes to figuring out why some people develop the disease while others do not; until something definitive is figured out, we must remain vigilant about the prevention and early detection of Parkinson's so that those suffering from it can receive the treatment they need as quickly as possible."

The MJFF says, "Age is the greatest risk factor for Parkinson's disease. Due to an aging population, researchers project the number of people with Parkinson's will double by 2040. Scientists believe our cells may be more susceptible to damage as they age. In addition, over time the expression of our genes may change, which could set off a chain of cellular events that leads to Parkinson's disease."

In addition, the foundation's site says, "Other factors have also been associated with an increased chance of developing Parkinson's disease. These include head injury and exposure to pesticides. As well, in the early 1980s, a group of heroin users in California developed a form of Parkinson's after taking drugs contaminated with a toxin called MPTP. Several studies have linked smoking and caffeine consumption to lower rates of Parkinson's disease. While we do not recommend smoking to prevent Parkinson's, understanding these connections can help guide research into the mechanisms and treatment of the disease."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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