Midway into the year and we can’t help but think that we may remember 2016 as the year some of our heroes fell. Following on from the sad news a few weeks ago about Prince’s demise, this last weekend the world lost one of its foremost sporting icons – Muhammad Ali.
Ali, or Cassius Marcellus Clay as he was formerly known, passed away at the age of 74. Viewed by many (including himself) as ‘The Greatest” boxer ever, Muhammad Ali is likely to be remembered today as much for championing the cause of Parkinson’s as he is for his pugilism.
For a man who was so gifted with words it must have been terrifying to be robbed of speech by the disease . Yet even in that silence he ‘spoke’ volumes, and helped educate so many about Parkinsonism, and the dangers of sport-induced brain trauma.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition caused by the death of specific nerve cells in the brain, named after the English doctor who first documented the condition in the 19th century. Today it is believed that up to 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s .
Back when Ali was first diagnosed, the disease was far less well understood.
In more recent times, our understanding of (and our ability to deal with) the condition have improved . In April of this year scientists announced that a new blood test might be able to detect the condition before symptoms appear, due to specific brain cells being destroyed
. Since the condition is incurable, but may to some extent be slowed if discovered early enough, the work of the scientists at Australia’s La Trobe University is cause for great optimism.
With the benefit of hindsight today we are learning to be more proactive about helping prevent diseases like Parkinson’s by reducing the incidence of head trauma (in much the same way that we now use sunscreen to shield ourselves from skin cancer). New concussion guidelines, for example, were introduced in Victoria just two weeks ago. They recommend that anyone under the age of 18 who suffers a concussion should not return to the sporting field for at least 2 weeks
So as we say goodbye to yet another icon of the 20th century, we can nonetheless be grateful to a man who not only helped advanced the state of his sport and the cause of race relations in America, but also our global understanding of one of this chronic and progressive medical condition.
May he rest in peace.