BOXING and Parkinson’s disease have been irrevocably linked ever since the most famous boxer in history and one of the most famous people in the world, Muhammad Ali, was diagnosed with the illness in 1984.
For some, the repeated blows to the head Ali received during his boxing career are to blame. They point to the fact that Ali was diagnosed at the age of 42, which was relatively young given that the majority of Parkinson’s sufferers develop the illness past the age of 60.
The fact remains that the causes of Ali’s condition are not clear, although studies suggest that Ali’s boxing career is likely to have increased his chances of developing Parkinson’s. In a statement released at Ali’s behest by specialists at the world-renowned Mayo clinic, where Ali underwent numerous tests, it was claimed that his brain stem had suffered degenerative changes which they believed to have been induced by boxing. The brain stem is a part of the brain that is linked with dopamine production – and a lack of dopamine is found in those afflicted with Parkinson’s.
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s long-time ringside physician, is one of those who feels boxing alone is not to blame, but rather the fact that Ali continued fighting longer than he should have. “Boxing in and out of itself is not the cause of Muhammad Ali’s brain injuries, but rather, it was Muhammad Ali fighting for too long and fighting at an advanced age that resulted in his injuries,” he stated.
When asked after which fight he felt he should have retired, Ali simply said, “Foreman,” referring to his 1974 world heavyweight title clash with George Foreman, The Rumble in the Jungle.
Many agree with this evaluation, arguing that Ali should have stopped his career after that triumphant victory in Zaire. But the fact remains that he did not. In fact he went on to fight another 14 times before retiring in 1981. Ali’s last two fights in particular, defeats to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, saw ‘The Greatest’ suffer unnecessary and consistent punishment.
Research undertaken by the Chulalongkorn Comprehensive Movement Disorders Center in Bangkok, Thailand which looked at the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in retired Thai boxers supports the claim that the disease is more likely to affect fighters who continue to practice their craft at an older age.
704 boxers took part in the study and it was found that eight of them (1.14%) had some form of Parkinsonism. The findings claimed that “Boxers with PD were found to have an older mean age than those without PD.”
It also went on to say that PD was more prevalent in those fighters with more than 100 bouts but, however, argues that the risk is an additional one to those who are already susceptible to the disease, “The analysis determined that the number of professional bouts is a risk factor among these boxers, supporting the notion that repetitive head trauma may pose an additional risk to certain individuals who are already susceptible to PD.”
The debate of the risks of boxing with regards to Parkinson’s has been ongoing for years and will most likely continue for years ahead, but what has recently emerged is evidence that boxing training can actually be beneficial to those who already suffer from Parkinson’s.
Claire Bale, Research Communications Manager at Parkinson’s UK, spoke to Boxing News about these developments.
“In the past few years there's been a huge surge of interest in exercise. It's becoming clear that exercise is incredibly important for keeping our brains healthy (as well as our bodies),” she said.
“Boxing might be especially good because it ticks all the boxes. It's pretty strenuous but it also involves quite a lot of balance and hand-eye coordination. It's also challenging mentally as you have to respond to your opponent - which may also be a factor.”
Although the research into the benefits of boxing training have been positive, Claire made sure to point out that they were done on a small scale, and that further research is needed. “So far there have only been a couple of studies which have looked specifically at the effects of boxing training in people with Parkinson's,” she said. “Both studies have been encouraging, suggesting that boxing training may improve balance, general mobility and quality of life for people living with the condition.”
“However, it's important to stress that both studies were very small and rather short-term so much larger and longer trials are needed to help us really understand the effects of boxing training in people with Parkinson's.”
One of these studies took place at the Krannert School of Physical Therapy, University of Indianapolis, which had six PD patients attend 24 to 36 boxing training sessions over the course of 12 weeks. The research found that “Despite the progressive nature of PD, the patients in this case series showed short-term and long-term improvements in balance, gait, activities of daily living, and quality of life after the boxing training program.”
An example of this occurred in the US, when a PD sufferer named Scott C. Newman founded the ‘Rock Steady Boxing’ program. After Newman was diagnosed with PD in 2006, he began some intense one-on-one boxing training and found that it dramatically improved his physical condition. With the help of former world champion Kristy Rose Follmar and a $100,000 grant, Newman opened a gym in Indianapolis dedicated to people with PD.
Newman’s program now has over 16 different classes and serves over 125 boxers per month, according to its website
At the moment there is no such program set up in the UK, but with the positive outcomes of the recent research and the emphasis on the importance of exercise for sufferers of PD, boxing can play a positive part in the lives of those with PD.