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Georgia: Top Brain Docs Explore ‘Staying Sharp’

Muhammad Ali's wife, Lonnie, speaks out about Parkinson's disease.

Muhammad Ali consults with neurologist Mahlon DeLong on most medical issues because of possible complications with Parkinson’s disease.

Photo courtesy Emory University

(Editor's Note: Because of a family emergency, neither Muhammad Ali nor Lonnie Ali will be able to attend the Staying Sharp forum.)

He’s still the Greatest, but the Louisville Lip’s mouth doesn’t move as fast as it did in his prime. 

Now, boxing legend Muhammad Ali lets his wife, Lonnie, do most of the talking.

Since Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1982, he has advocated for more research. He is scheduled to be in Atlanta Saturday, April 18, when Lonnie and some of the world’s top specialists discuss diseases of the brain.

A self-described “motor mouth,” she’s been a crusader for Parkinson’s patients. At the “Staying Sharp” forum, an AARP initiative, she’s likely to dominate the panel the way her husband did his foes. She said her role will be to talk about caregiving.

Thanks to her efforts, the champ leads as normal a life as possible. He attends sporting events such as the NBA All-Star Game, concerts by Willie Nelson and Celine Dion and a performance by magician David Copperfield. He loves watching old Elvis Presley movies and going out with friends. The couple divides time among homes in Phoenix, Louisville, Ky., and Berrien Springs, Mich., where their high school son, Asaad, plays baseball.

“He’s supposed to take meds four to five times a day,” said Lonnie, 52. “With Muhammad, if we get him to take them three to four times, that would be good. It’s always a challenge to be a caregiver. It’s full time. I can afford to have help. But a lot of families can’t and are challenged.”

Although Ali, 67, is highly functional, “you can’t leave him alone,” she said.

Like most Parkinson’s patients, Ali takes a drug called levodopa, or L-dopa. It replaces the brain’s messenger dopamine cells that die from the disease. Drugs help many patients lead fairly normal lives.

“Muhammad does quite well on his medications,” said Mahlon DeLong, his Parkinson’s specialist for more than a dozen years and a neurologist at the Emory University School of Medicine. “He can talk, but has a hard time speaking with enough volume to be heard, and is a little unsteady on his feet. But he exercises, which is good.”

Ali has both massage and physical therapy twice a week to work on his balance and strength. DeLong also wants Ali to get out of the house every day.

Ali’s battle with Parkinson’s illustrates the plight of the millions of Americans who suffer from degenerative brain diseases. At the forum, topics will include how the brain changes through life, memory loss, research, treatments and caregiving.

About 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s, and 60,000 new diagnoses are made each year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. Some 5.3 million have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and approximately 454,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed next year.

Scientists are trying to understand, treat and cure both diseases, which may be related in ways not yet understood, said Allan Levey, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory. Levey and DeLong are both on the forum panel.

Although medications help people with both illnesses, cures are still not at hand, he said.

Many neurologists say people can aid brain health and stave off or slow progression of the diseases by exercising, eating nutritiously and staying active mentally.

DeLong said there are promising ideas about causes. Pesticide toxins are suspected, along with genetic mutations. Vitamin D deficiency also may play a role.

“We do believe that controlling blood pressure, lipids (fatty acids), being on a Mediterranean diet, all have helpful benefits,” he said.

Although medicines are the first line of treatment for Parkinson’s, doctors also perform surgery in which electrodes are implanted in the brain. They are controlled by a pacemaker-like device under the skin of the chest, and provide periodic jolts, which reduce or eliminate the involuntary jerky movements endured by many Parkinson’s patients.

Parkinson’s strikes mostly after age 60, though there are many exceptions. Ali was 45. Most Alzheimer’s patients are diagnosed after 65. Because genetics is thought to play a role in both, a major risk factor is having blood relatives with the same disease.

Bill Hendrick, a freelance writer in Atlanta, specializes in health care and science.

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