Parkinson’sThis past year, in 2015, marked the 20th anniversary of the celebrated and beloved movie Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. Michael was himself a beloved cultural icon from that time as well. For those of you from my generation, we grew up with him. At the time he hit it big at the box office with the first in the trilogy of his Back to the Future series, 20 years ago last summer, I was enjoying the final summer of my High School years. When the trilogy was completed 5 years later, I was completing my last year at Texas A&M. I can remember still, the night of its release, standing in a line that went on forever for the opportunity to attend a special ʻBack to Back to Backʼ marathon where all three movies were to be shown in succession. The event, which I attended with my brother and some of our friends, remains the only time I’ve attempted such a Herculean feat. But it was Michael J. Fox.

His role as Alex Keaton on NBCʼs Emmy winning Family Ties, which ran from 1982 to 1989, endeared him to the country and his three consecutive Emmy wins for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series at the time attests to this. As did his soaring popularity at the Hollywood box office.

And then, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Michael J. Fox at the relatively young age of 29 years, began displaying symptoms of an illness that would a year later be diagnosed as due to the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. He delayed going public with the knowledge until 1999 and in the meantime earned additional awards and success for his work in the Spin City series. He was young and talented and had few detractors. Which was why hearing the news of his illness at the time was such a shock. Not him. Not Michael.

Named for the English doctor who first described it in 1817, Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. More specifically, a portion of the brain called the midbrain. The midbrain sits below our cerebral cortex and is really at the nervous system’s center. Amongst other things it is involved in motor control, alertness or arousal, and temperature regulation. The disease is caused by the inexplicable death of the dopamine producing neurons or cells in this region. And the symptoms of the disease relate to the subsequent loss of this critical neurotransmitter, which is in essence a chemical messenger from one nerve cell to the next. Without it nerves don’t communicate properly with each other or the muscles they innervate. And that’s why motor control is the presenting issue for many of the estimated one million Americans who suffer from it.

A resting tremor, pill rolling movements between the thumb and index finger, slowed, rigid and unstable movements are all characteristic of the disease. At the later stages it can ultimately impact cognitive function. It is progressive and can prove devastating to all affected.

There exists now medications, dopamine like drugs, which can be used to minimize the symptoms of the disease, but there is presently no cure for the illness. I have had many patients affected directly or indirectly by this disease, and the challenges it presents to those affected, both the individuals and their families and caretakers, speaks to the courage of the men and women who daily battle it.

Which is why the true measure of success for Michael J Fox comes not from his acting resume but from his work since being dealt the unfortunate hand. It comes from the man who has dedicated much of his later life to creating a foundation to support both the research of the disease and the hope for a cure, as well as provide support to the affected patients and their families. It comes from the courage of a man who works to spread awareness about the disease and can personally attest to its impact. Michael returned to the airwaves briefly after an over 10 year absence for the short lived Michael J. Fox Show. The premise for the series centered on a man attempting to return to his job as a news anchor after a long hiatus related to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. An intentional example of art imitating life. Though the show was short lived Michael’s passion has been anything but. We should all emulate the courage of a man seeking to bring attention and support to such a worthy cause.

You can learn more about the illness and ways to support its victims and their families by contacting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research at www.michaeljfox.org, as well as other advocacy organizations including the National Parkinson Foundation and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. If you or a loved one have personal concerns regarding this disease, we urge you to come speak with one of our providers here at Austin Family Medicine Associates.

Dr. Andrew Dale