Thanks in large part to Michael J. Fox, many Americans have now heard of Parkinson’s disease. In 1998 the Emmy-winning actor announced that he has the disease (he was diagnosed seven years before he told the world), and about two years later, he left his hit TV series, ABC’s Spin City, to focus on raising awareness and funds for Parkinson’s research. Through his Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research he has become one of the driving forces in the development of better treatments and potential cures. So while you’ve probably heard of Michael’s cause (not to mention Muhammad Ali’s battle with the disease), do you really know what Parkinson’s is all about? OK! talked to Michael and leading doctors in the field to give you the facts.
What Is Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s, which affects an estimated one million Americans, is a neurological disorder. In most cases, it affects people who are older than 50, but a much smaller percentage of people, like Michael, get what is called early-onset or young-onset Parkinson’s, in which symptoms begin as early as the late 20s or 30s. Parkinson’s develops when nerve cells (or neurons) in a particular part of the brain die or become damaged. These cells are supposed to produce dopamine, a chemical messenger (or neurotransmitter) that transmits signals within the brain to control motor function. But when these cells don’t function, no dopamine gets produced, and without this crucial chemical, people are unable to move normally. This leads to symptoms such as shaking, stiffness, slowness of movement, difficulty balancing and even trouble speaking, among other things.