Michael J Fox And The Warning Signs Of Parkinsons Disease
With the debut of his new television series, The Michael J. Fox Show, Parkinsons disease will be put front and center. In a recent interview, Michael J. Fox revealed the early warning signs that had him head to a neurologist and ended up as a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.
Whether the show becomes a hit is yet to be seen, but one thing it will do is educate viewers about a disease that most people know little or nothing about. Hopefully, the show will prompt viewers to learn more about this disease that today affects over one million adults in the United States and could result in an early diagnoses.
One of the easiest descriptions of Parkinsons disease is given by the National Parkinsons Foundation. They explain that the disease occurs when an important chemical in the brain, called dopamine, ceases to be made. Dopamine helps with body movement and mood. Parkinsons is a degenerative disease, slowly getting worse over time. In many cases, with medical attention, patients are able to live longer than expected. Medications that replace dopamine, as well as other treatments, are given to patients to deal with the symptoms.
Handwriting that has gotten smaller than normal can be a sign of Parkinsons. If cramped handwriting is not due to aging, arthritis, or poor vision, making smaller letter sizes and crowding words together could be a warning sign.
The Attention Michael Has Brought To Parkinson’s Research Has Sparked A Complete Revolution
Fox testifies before Congress in 2000 on the benefits of stem cell research. Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis
Parkinson’s is an idiopathic disease, meaning researchers do not know what causes dopamine-producing brain cells to degenerate and trigger symptoms like trembling, slowness and rigidity. Fox’s case is unusual in that the average age of onset is late 50s. Genetics and environmental factors, like exposure to pesticides and metals, can play a role, although the connection is unclear.
Says Fox, “When I was younger I fished in rivers that had pulp and paper mills on them, but you never know.”
Michael J Fox Embraced Realistic Optimism
In 2020, Michael J. Fox rebuilt his optimism, but a bit differently this time. The source of it came not from throwing himself into his work or trying to cure Parkinson’s disease in 10 years as he’d originally set out to do. Instead, it came down to acceptance. “I think the first thing you have to do is accept if you’re faced with a difficult situation,” Fox told USA Today, adding, “And once I do that, that doesn’t mean I can’t ever change it. I can change it, but I have to accept it for what it is first, before I can change it.” Acceptance isn’t always easy, though. As Fox told The Guardian, “I used to walk fast, but every step now is a frigging math problem, so I take it slow.” He accepted that a cure in his lifetime was not likely going to happen, but “that’s just the way it goes.”
Breaking his arm had taught him an important lesson: You must be realistic, as well as optimistic, and that being grateful for the good in your life “is what makes optimism sustainable,” he told USA Today. With the slogan “Strength in optimism. Hope in progress,” the American Parkinson Disease Association echoes Fox’s newfound approach to practical positivity. And even with the realization that a cure is not plausible in the near future, Fox’s own foundation states, “Even in the face of tremendous challenges, our promise to push Parkinson’s research forward remains steadfast.”
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There’s No Time Like The Future For Michael J Fox
Titled “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality,” Michael J. Fox’s 2020 memoir describes how Fox came to understand and embrace his new form of reality-based and gratitude-driven optimism . Although Fox is unable to physically write with a keyboard or a pen, he dictated this fourth memoir through as assistant. “He has increasing difficulty in forming words, and occasionally needs a wheelchair,” The Guardian noted. But that didn’t stop him from engaging in an almost two-hour interview, nearly skipping lunch to keep the conversation going.
Although Fox has stepped away from acting, he’s still involved in his foundation. Its Deputy CEO, Sohini Chowdhury, sees possibly big advances in Parkinson’s treatments happening in the next few years. “It’s important to remember that a cure can mean different things to different people,” she told the European Parkinson’s Disease Association. “If you’re able to improve the symptom management of the disease to an extent where having the disease has very little impact on your day-to-day life, that could be considered a cure.”
Fox himself told The New York Times that better treatments for managing Parkinson’s symptoms can make a big different in people’s lives. “Now, if we can prophylactically keep Parkinson’s symptoms from developing in a person, is that a cure? No. Would I take it? Yes.”
This Was The First Sign Of Parkinsons That Michael J Fox Noticed
Actor Michael J. Foxwas diagnosed with Parkinsons at the height of his career when he was just 29 years old. Earlier on in his battle with the disease, he was extremely private about itbut then, almost a decade after he was diagnosed in 1991, Fox decided to open up about his condition. As an advocate for Parkinsons patients, Fox felt it essential to share what the first subtle sign of the illness was for him, so that others would know what red flags they shouldnt ignore. To see what sign you should keep an eye out for, read on.
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Michael J Fox’s History With Parkinson’s Disease Explained
Ask any child of the ’80s about Michael J. Fox, and they’ll probably bring up Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly . Even though Marty was a high school student, Fox was 28 years old when “Back to the Future Part III” hit theaters in 1990. A year later, he was diagnosed with a form of Parkinson’s disease, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research’s website.
For the next 30 years, Fox came to terms with the disease, moving from hiding it and diving full force into his work to managing it openly by starting a foundation to search for a cure, according to the foundation’s site. His optimism was tested over the years and unlike Marty McFly, Fox doesn’t have a flying DeLorean that allows him to rewrite the past to create his ideal future. While the actor might see his future differently than he once did, he surely hasn’t given up on it. Here’s a look at his history with Parkinson’s disease.
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Michael J Fox Retired From Acting A Second Time
Despite returning to the small screen on TV shows like “Scrubs,” “Boston Legal,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” after his initial retirement, Michael J. Fox announced in November 2020 that he was entering a second retirement from acting. “There are reasons for my lapses in memorization be they age, cognitive issues with the disease, distraction from the constant sensations of Parkinson’s, or lack of sensation because of the spine but I read it as a message, an indicator,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir .
When thinking of Parkinson’s disease, many may picture difficulty walking or shaking. However, as the Parkinson’s Foundation explained, there are also cognitive issues such as “difficulty remembering information or have trouble finding the right words when speaking.” In addition, language difficulties connected to Parkinson’s can manifest themselves during times of stress or when under pressure . Other non-movement symptoms can include difficulty making decisions and maintaining focus especially in a group situation, as well as a general slowing down in one’s thinking.
Even though Fox may have put acting behind him, he remains hopeful that he might find himself in the spotlight again while simultaneously accepting it may never happen. “That could change, because everything changes. But if this is the end of my acting career, so be it,” he wrote.
He Continues To Believe In An Eventual Cure
When Michael J. Fox created his foundation, he didnt see it existing past 10 years . Why? Because in 2000, he believed research efforts by his nonprofit would cure Parkinsons disease, and so make its existence unnecessary. More than 20 years later, the Michael J. Fox Foundation is at the forefront of research into not only the possible genetic components of Parkinsons but also environmental and aging factors that might impact the disease .
According to the foundations website, for some people there is a connection between developing Parkinsons and being exposed to toxic substances like pesticides or MPTP. Head injuries may for some individuals play a role in developing this disease. By far, however, the most significant factor when it comes to Parkinsons is simply aging since the older a persons cells are, the more vulnerable they may be to harm. Plus, the fact that human genes change during a persons lifespan may also play a part in who develops Parkinsons.
When asked in 2019, Almost 20 years later, whats your thinking about finding a cure for Parkinsons? Fox replied, I still believe in a cure, and he acknowledged the importance of more effective treatments . And his foundations website echoes this idea, stating, Better understanding of the complex genetic, environmental, aging and other factors that lead to Parkinsons would be game-changing in our pursuit of preventive and therapeutic treatment options.
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Michael J Fox Underwent Brain Surgery
After deciding to go public, Fox had brain surgery to treat his Parkinsons disease. According to Brain & Life magazine, he underwent a procedure called thalamotomy in an attempt to control his tremors. This called for making a small hole in Foxs thalamus . Is that risky? No, its very risky! Dr. Jason M. Schwalb told Brain & Life, If the targeting is inaccurate by 3 mm, the patient can have permanent neurologic injury.
However, Parkinsons patients may opt for a different type of brain surgery called DBS or deep brain stimulation . Similar to pacemaker surgery for a heart condition, DBS involves implanting electrodes in the brain, which are connected to a stimulation device in the persons chest . While a thalamotomy is considered an unconventional approach, DBS is the most commonly performed surgical treatment for Parkinsons, per the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Lawyer Jim McNasby found the information about DBS particularly useful . Like Fox, McNasby was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinsons and remembers when Fox went public about his condition. Michael J. Fox had just come out with the early onset Parkinsons idea and so it was just coming into the public domain, he told Healthline. Because of his pro bono work with the Foundation, McNasby learned about DBS and found it greatly reduced his symptoms.
Fox Says He Was ‘so Scared’ During The Early Years
Accepting his newfound reality, Fox tried to move forward with his life. At home, his young son Sam dubbed his left hand the shaky hand and made a game of it, but at work, it was getting harder to hide. As photographers and reporters anxiously awaited his arrival at the Golden Globes in January 1998, he stalled in the limo as his left arm and leg shook uncontrollably. He asked the driver to take another spin around the block. Three spins later, his medication kicked into effect and he was able to proceed without anyone aware of his secret. He even snagged the Best Actor trophy that night.
It wasnt that he was ashamed of it. It was just that he had to learn how to deal with it on his own. So Fox continued working. Telling whoever needed to know, but mostly keeping it to a tight group.
Those seven years saw a period where he focused on comedies: Life with Mikey , For Love or Money and Greedy . My decision making was ridiculous, he admitted in 2019 to the New York Times Magazine of the time. It wasnt based on truth.
Looking back on that period now, hes able to admit his vulnerability. I was so scared, Fox explained to the New York Times Magazine. I was so unfamiliar with Parkinsons. Someone is saying your life is going to be completely changed. Yeah? When? He admits he took on projects because of time restrictions and financial pressures since they were inflated in my head, so he chose as many quick successful movies as he could.
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Notable Figures With Parkinsons
Although more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinsons disease , the general publics understanding of disease symptoms is often limited to what is seen in the media. Many people only know Parkinsons as the disease that Muhammad Ali had, or Michael J. Fox has.
However, when a household name such as Ali or Fox announces their diagnosis, Parkinsons coverage briefly spikes. While a diagnosis is upsetting, when notable figures are public about their disease, the coverage helps increase awareness and understanding, while personalizing Parkinsons for those with no other connection.
A PD diagnosis is universally difficult to cope with, but with a platform to speak from and fans to speak to, heres a list of notable figures that have helped shape the Parkinsons conversation:
Book Excerpt: No Time Like The Future
Im going down. Its a flash fall. Vertical to horizontal in a blink. I twist my head to save my face from collision with the kitchen tile. What the hell just happened? I rise up on my right elbow, expecting to shift my weight to the left and push up onto my feet. Surprise: I cant feel my left arm. As my shock subsides, its clear that I need help. Slithering forward on my belly toward the wall-mounted phone, I am a one-armed commando crawling under the table, across the floor, and through a thicket of chair legs, dragging a sandbag of a left arm that remains unresponsive and unavailable.
The day before the accident, I flew back to Manhattan from Marthas Vineyard, in the middle of our summer vacation. Tracy was concerned about me staying in New York by myself. I was still what we would both describe as a little wobbly on my feet. But Id been asked to do a one-day cameo on a Spike Leeproduced movie, up in the Bronx, and it offered a brief window of independence. Ill be back in two days, I promised. Save me a lobster.
Schuyler, one of our twenty-five-year-old twin daughters, also needed to head back to the city for work, so we traveled home together. She lingered with me for dinner, take-out pasta at the kitchen table. Polishing off the last forkful, she had a question.
How do you feel about going back to work?
I dont know, I guess I feel normal again.
But are you nervous, Dood? All of my kids call me that. Not Dude, Dood.
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Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery
A team of experts, including a movement disorder specialist and a brain surgeon, conducts an extensive assessment when considering DBS for someone. They review your medications and symptoms, examine you when you’re on and off Parkinson’s medication, and take brain imaging scans. They also may do detailed memory/thinking testing to detect any problems that could worsen with DBS. If your doctors do recommend you for DBS and you are considering the surgery, discuss with your care team the potential benefits as each person’s experience is unique. It’s also critical to discuss the potential surgical risks, including bleeding, stroke and infection.
In DBS surgery, the surgeon places thin wires called electrodes into one or both sides of the brain, in specific areas that control movement. Usually you remain awake during surgery so you can answer questions and perform certain tasks to make sure the electrodes are positioned correctly. Some medical centers now use brain imaging to guide the electrodes to the right spot while a person is asleep. Each method has its pros and cons and may not be suitable for everyone or available everywhere.
Once the electrodes are in place, the surgeon connects them to a battery-operated device , which usually is placed under the skin below the collarbone. This device, called a neurostimulator, delivers continuous electrical pulses through the electrodes.
Fox Remains Optimistic That There Will Be A Cure
From the start, his attitude about his diagnosis was clear and became his trademark: optimism mixed with reality.
That fall, he went back to Spin City, but eventually left after two more seasons. One of the reasons I left Spin City was that I felt my face hardening, he told theNew York Times Magazine. My movements were constricted. If you watch episodes from the last couple of seasons, youll see I would anchor myself against a desk or the wall. Eventually, it was too burdensome.
Knowing his limits and knowing where to channel his energy became his priority. By the end of that year, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and poured all his efforts into its work.
Despite returning to acting and writing three best-selling books , his true purpose now remains on his foundation. I still believe in a cure, he told The New York Times Magazine.
Fox has been known to pick up a guitar at his foundations annual benefit and reprise the iconic Back to the FutureJohnny B. Goode scene with Coldplays Chris Martin even joining him in 2013. After all, Fox is a true rockstar.