Is Muhammad Ali's Parkinsons caused by the beating he took as a boxer?

Just wondered what the current thinking was on this issue.

Well, the National Parkinson Foundation sees a correlation between boxing and the disease, with the risk increasing with the length of a boxer’s career and the number of fights. Causation is a tricker subject. It’s conceivable that Ali would have developed Parkinson’s even without a boxing career, but not enough is known about the disease at this time.

My guess is that boxing is to Parkinson’s (and similar neurological ailments) as smoking is to lung cancer. Doing the former doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the latter, but your risk is increased dramatically.

As a big boxing fan who has been hearing this debate in the boxing community for a long time, I think it’s clear there is some connection between the two. As Bryan said, though, correlation and causation aren’t the same thing. Parkinson’s disease is a disease many people get, boxers and non-boxers alike. To blame Ali’s current condition solely on boxing would be wrong.

However, it seems that Ali’s condition is at least partly to blame on the punishment he took in the ring, especially in his later years. Perhaps this punishment triggered the disease or made it worse. I know of one other former boxer, Freddie Roach (now a trainer), who has Parkinson’s. He said that his doctor attributes it in part to the ring wars he was in.

I am not an expert in either boxing nor Parkinson’s, but I have heard that Ali had already started taking L-dopa when he fought his infamous last matches. In which case the punishment he took at the end of his career would have been caused by his Parkinson’s. That doesn’t mean it didn’t make it worse, though.

As someone who has a number of Parkinson’s sufferers in his family, I can also say that “Parkinson’s” is probably not one single disease with one single cause. Rather, a number of different genetic/environmental factors can trigger different neurochemical problems that lead to symptoms that are broadly labeled as “Parkinsonian”.

People suffer from different symptoms (for instance, the tremors that are so pronounced in Ali have never been much of a problem for my father–he’s more plagued by problems of muscle rigidity), react very differently to treatment drugs, and experience widely differing courses of the disease, with some succumbing quickly after a decade in their youth, some getting symptoms in middle age and continuing for years and years with slowly mounting troubles, and others developing symptoms only in extreme old age, and dying of other, unrelated causes before it has much impact on their life.

IANAD, but my grandfather was a semi-pro boxer–a decent fighter who won a number of regional titles–who fought for many years. He, too, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s during the last years of his life. One of his doctors told me that Parkinson’s “was common” among retired boxers, and pointed specifically to Ali as an example.

Of course, this doctor could have been misinformed or misled, though it seemed he had some knowledge of the relevant medical literature.

Just keep this in mind: How often did you see Ali take a shot to the head? Not often. It was amazing how he could just lean back out of reach or move just to the side just in time.

I am not one to berate Ali. I was just wondering if it has been medically determined that 100% of his medical problems are due to Parkinson’s disease?

Earl Snake-Hips Tucker
I had heard (from George Foreman I think) that Ali would spar without a helmet just so he could always stay alert and to simulate the real fight as much as possible. So, he might have taken some punches to the head that we don’t even know about. Granted it would have been from a sparring partner as opposed to a heavyweight champion but it is something to consider.

This link from the National Parkinson Foundation (see 7th paragraph after ‘conclusions’) seems much more convinced about the association than you.

Indeed, you will find numerous links describing/discussing the condition by searching for dementia puglistica, the medical term for the complete boxer’s syndrome.

Another useful search term is chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Here is one example of a reference: Review article #1.

Here is another: Review #2.

Parkinsonian features are but one of the manifestations.