Parkinson’s disease is a common nervous system disorder. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease. Symptoms, such as tremor and slowed movement, may be so mild they go largely unnoticed for a long period of time. Then, when the disorder worsens, they become more noticeable. These well-known actors, politicians, and public figures have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and spoken openly about their experiences.
Michael J. Fox
When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, doctors told Fox, star of the classic “Back to the Future” film series, he had 10 years left to work. That was 26 years ago, in 1991, when the actor was just 30 years old.
Fox kept his diagnosis hidden for several years, taking on many acting roles to fulfill the brief time he thought he had remaining. Then in 1998, the Canadian native embraced his condition and announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“I thought it was a mistake. I got a couple of second opinions and third opinions,” Fox told the “Today Show” in 2014. “It’s a degenerative, progressive disease. You can’t say, ‘You can expect this henceforth.’ Plus, there’s shame in illness.”
After he told the world about the condition, Fox created The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Today, the foundation and Fox are actively seeking a cure to the disease. “Once I made my diagnosis known, it’s been a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous privilege,” Fox said. “We have some amazing people that have done amazing work, and we have brought this foundation to a place where we’re key players in the quest for a cure.”
The world-famous boxer was known for his stinging words and swift punch, but the sting of Parkinson’s disease was one battle the Louisville, Kentucky, native couldn’t beat.
Ali boxed until 1981. Just three short years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His doctors attributed the condition to brain injuries from years of boxing.
After leaving the ring, he worked to help many religious and charitable organizations. As time marched on, Parkinson’s took its toll. In a 1991 interview, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel asked Ali if he was worried about making public appearances as the progression of the disease became more obvious.
“I realize my pride would make me say no, but it scares me to think I’m too proud to come on this show because of my condition,” he said. “I might die tomorrow, I might die next week. I don’t know when I’ll die.” Five years later, in the summer of 1996, Ali took center stage at the Atlanta Games and lit the Olympic flame in front of a world of adoring fans. He died in 2016, 32 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
America’s first female Attorney General faced down many serious problems, including finding the Unabomber and ending a 51-day siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, during her tenure. She held the office for almost eight years, and two years into her tenure, she started experiencing unusual symptoms.
“I noticed a tremor in my early-morning walks around the Capitol. At first it was just a faint twitch, but it got progressively worse, and so I went to the doctor,” Reno told Neurology Now in 2006. “He asked me some questions, examined me, and told me that I had Parkinson’s and that I’d be fine for 20 years. Then he started talking to me about violence issues related to the criminal justice system!”
Reno died in 2016, more than 20 years after her diagnosis. In between those two points, she lived a robust life, filled with kayaking, exercise, and a run for Florida’s governor. Reno said in that same interview with Neurology Now that she couldn’t have been as successful without her doctors.
Charles M. Schulz
You may not know his name and face, but you surely know his art. Schulz is the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which features much-loved characters like Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt, Snoopy, Schroeder, and Linus van Pelt.
Schulz began showing signs of Parkinson’s disease more than a decade before he was formally diagnosed in the 1990s.
“It’s just annoying,” Schulz told interviewer Michael Barrier in 1988. “It slows me down, and I have to letter very carefully. After my heart surgery, it was intolerable, and then I wracked up my knee playing hockey. That was worse than the heart surgery; it just took all the life out of me. I remember one day I came back, and I was so weak I finally had to quit. I just couldn’t hold that pen still. Am I supposed to sit here the rest of my life drawing these things while all my friends are dying or retiring?”
Grammy Award-winner Linda Ronstadt made a career out of crafting and crooning some of America’s most popular tunes, including “You’re No Good” and “Don’t Know Much,” which she sang with Aaron Neville. Her singing career started in the mid-1960s as folk rock was making waves and growing in popularity. Before retiring in 2011, she released 30 studio albums and 15 collections of her greatest hits.
Just a year after retiring, Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the disorder has left the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer unable to sing.
“Well, as I got older I got Parkinson’s disease, so I couldn’t sing at all,” Ronstadt told Vanity Fair in 2013. “That’s what happened to me. I was singing at my best strength when I developed Parkinson’s. I think I’ve had it for quite a while.”
Also in 2013, the singer told AARP, The Magazine she suspected she had the condition for several years before she had a diagnosis. “I think I’ve had it for seven or eight years already, because I’ve had the symptoms that long. Then I had a shoulder operation, so I thought that must be why my hands were shaking. Parkinson’s is very hard to diagnose,” she said. “So when I finally went to a neurologist and he said, ‘Oh, you have Parkinson’s disease,’ I was completely shocked. I was totally surprised. I wouldn’t have suspected that in a million, billion years.”
Johnny Isakson, three-term U.S. senator from Georgia, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. The southern Republican was only a year out from another reelection season when he made the diagnosis public in 2015.
“While I am facing this health challenge head on, I have wrestled with whether to disclose it publicly,” he told The Washington Post. “I recently shared the news with my three grown children and my senior staff a couple of months ago. Their support, along with the steadfast support of my wife, Dianne, helped me to take this step today. In the end, I decided I should handle my personal health challenge with the same transparency that I have championed throughout my career.”
Christian evangelist, minister, and author Billy Graham may be best known for his large rallies, radio sermons, and television appearances. The North Carolina native has also served as a spiritual adviser to several American presidents, including Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon.
In 1992, the minister was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but he didn’t retire from his ministry until 2005. In 2010, he told AARP, The Magazine, “I have my good days, and I have my bad days.”
Today, the 98-year-old lives in Montreat, North Carolina, his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains.