What is now the largest health issue for athletes? If your first guess is concussions, you'd be correct, especially in football and hockey. Head injuries have led to a lower life expectancy because of an increased chance to get Alzheimers/Dementia and ALS.
What about Parkinson's Disease?
There are fifteen world class athletes who have been diagnosed with P.D. We can eliminate the runners, cyclists and coaches. That leaves ten athletes in five sports.
Let's start with boxing. The two athletes include the most famous person in the Parkinson's world, the late Muhammad Ali. In his boxing career, he had sixty-one professional fights. Although he won fifty-five of those fights, he took a lot of punishment, especially in the second half of his career. His fights with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton were brutal. You could see the effects on Ali even while he was still fighting. He was slowing down and his speech was slurred.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome in 1984, just three years after the end of his boxing career. What Ali actually had was Parkinson's Pugilistica. It's a form of Parkinson's that you get from repeated blows to the head and is seen in boxers and wrestlers. So Ali's case, his sport was the most important factor in his Parkinson's.
There's only one Hockey player that we know with Parkinson's. It's Al Arbour, who was a defenseman. His career was during the 1950-60's, a time where players were not wearing helmets. He even wore glasses while he played. Arbour was best known as a player for his skill as a shot blocker. That takes a toll on your body but didn't lead to head injuries. Arbour wasn't diagnosed with Parkinson's until late in life, less than a year before he died at age 82. Whether Hockey played any part in that can't be determined.
We found two basketball players with Parkinson's, Jerry Sloan and Brian Grant. Both were physical players who were not afraid to use their bodies and didn't shy away from contact. Sloan was a first or second team all defensive team player six times. He was not afraid to get in front of offensive players and take a charge. This also took a toll on his body but head injuries, not so much. Whether this caused his diagnosis of Parkinson's is inconclusive.
Baseball is an interesting case study. The three players diagnosed with Parkinson's are Jimmy Piersall, Dave Parker and Kirk Gibson. All three were outfielders and all three were known for their toughness and how hard they played the game. Diving catches, running into fences trying to catch balls and head first slides were a regular part of their games. Parker feels his style of play was a major factor in his disease, although there's no proof of that. There's as much of a chance that his cocaine addiction in the 1980's played as big a part, although that's unknown, also.
Finally there's Football. It's the sport where you see the most concussions and also the most cases of early dementia. You would think because of the sport's head contact, you would find cases of Parkinson's Pugilistica, similar to Muhammad Ali. Shockingly not. There are only two cases of football players with Parkinson's, Lou Groza and David Jennings. Groza was a place-kicker and Jennings a punter, neither a contact position.
The one thing you may have noticed is with the exception of Boxing, the connection of sports to Parkinson's is unknown, and even Boxing is a special case. In actuality, when you consider that there have been thousands of athletes playing these sports and only a few handful can be found with Parkinson's, that's a very good sign.
Three years ago, I asked the National Parkinson's Foundation about the connection of head injuries due to contact sports, mostly football and Parkinson's. This was their response:
There is not conclusive evidence, but there are a number of epidemiological studies that have linked Parkinson’s disease risk to a history of head trauma. With regard to the research involving football players, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the United States Centers for Disease Control, published a study in the medical journal, Neurology, in which they surveyed nearly 3,500 retired NFL players who were in the league between 1959 and 1998. They did find that the incidence of dementia in the cohort was greater than in the general population. They did not find an increased incidence of Parkinson’s compared to the general population. This is only one study, though, and more research needs to be done.
It's three years later and not much has changed. As they said, more research needs to be done. Money is needed to finance this research. That's why Parkinson's Awareness Month exists.
Here's a more in depth look at those athletes who have been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
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