Michael J. Fox Advocates for the Future of Parkinson’s Disease

Published: October 3rd, 2016

Category: UAD Student Blog

Michael J. Fox is an actor famously known for playing Marty McFly in Back to the Future. In 1991, Fox was diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson’s Disease at the age of thirty.


Early-onset of Parkinson’s comes with a “smoother” course of illness than Parkinson’s disease (PD) acquired in later years of adulthood. Those diagnosed with PD at a younger age experience the disease differently. They are at a different stage in life, have fewer general health complications, and are more responsive to treatments due to more active neuroplasticity. Overall, young-onset of PD has a slower rate of progression. Still, even the best cocktail of medication does not cure the disease.

PD is a chronic movement disorder which worsens over time. An estimated one million people in America are afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.  The cause of the disorder is not yet known, but certain factors may make one more susceptible to the disease. For instance, because the average age of onset is sixty years, age is a major predictive factor. It is important to note, however, that early-onset Parkinson’s disease affects younger people as well. The American Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates that 10- 15% of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are younger than fifty years of age at the time of diagnosis. In the same vein, people as young as eighteen years have been diagnosed with the disorder.

PD involves the atrophy of neurons in the substantia nigra of the brain. This area is responsible for producing a neurotransmitter called dopamine and for providing it to the basal ganglia. Without adequate dopamine, the basal ganglia cannot regulate movement normally, and the characteristic symptoms of PD begin to emerge.

Symptoms of PD can vary widely from person to person, and they increase in severity over time. Four hallmark motor symptoms of the disorder are bradykinesia, resting tremor, rigidity, and postural instability. These four primary motor symptoms are also the basis of secondary motor symptoms of the disorder. For example, the characteristic lack of facial expression in patients with Parkinson’s disease is caused by bradykinesia, and the difficulties with gait are caused by the interaction of bradykinesia and postural instability.

Though PD is a motor disorder, nonmotor symptoms accompany it as well. Some of these include decreased olfactory sensation, REM sleep disorder, and cognitive impairment. Due to PD’s often pronounced interference with everyday life, anxiety and depression are common symptoms as well.

Though the cause of the disease and its cure have not yet been discovered, treatment options are available to help those with Parkinson’s disease live fulfilling lives. Medications are available which can alleviate the motor symptoms of bradykinesia, resting tremor, and rigidity. Because these symptoms are caused by a lack of dopamine, medications to treat these symptoms often act to temporarily increase dopamine levels in the brain. Levodopa, for instance, is a common medication used to treat symptoms; this drug is converted into dopamine in the brain to provide a temporary supply. Other medications act as dopamine agonists by imitating its effects. As a side effect, dopamine treatments can lead to dyskinesia in people with Parkinson’s when there is too much dopamine in the system. In an interview with National Public Radio in 2002, Michael J. Fox shares that “the symptoms … people see in some of these interviews that [I] have been on are actually dyskinesia, which is a reaction to the medication. Because if I were purely symptomatic with Parkinson’s symptoms, a lot of times speaking is difficult.”

In addition to medications, there are also non-drug options for managing PD symptoms. Exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet can help people manage symptoms, as can participating in a support group. Even simply maintaining a positive, proactive mindset can make a difference. For instance, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation has even indicated that research shows a decrease in symptoms for those who embrace an active role in their management of the disease.

Michael J. Fox is an excellent example of how to be proactive with the disorder. In 2000, Fox launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. This non-profit organization has raised more than $450 million for research, investing money into areas such as altering disease, defining PD, untreated symptoms and tools. Fox has advocated for PD funding and awareness to the US Congress, at the first World Parkinson Congress, on the Ellen Show, on CNN, and through many other opportunities.

Fox has been able to return to his acting career, despite the disease, due to a balanced drug regimen that allows him to overcome his symptoms.

Fox has been known for his optimism and light-hearted approach to the obstacles he has overcome while balancing his acting career, family life and PD foundation. He reminds the world to unite to fight the disease. And he shows through his example to make the best out of life.



American Parkinson Disease Association. (2016). Information on Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease. Retrieved from http://www.apdaparkinson.org/national-young-onset-center/symptoms/

Grush, Loren. (2013, January 8). Michael J. Fox’s TV return: How he’s able to control Parkinson’s. Fox News Health. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/01/08/michael-j-foxs-tv-return-how-hes-able-to-do-it.html

National Parkinson Foundation. (2016). Understanding Parkinson’s. Retrieved from http://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons

Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Inc. (2016). Understanding Parkinson’s. Retrieved from http://www.pdf.org/en/understanding_pd

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. (n.d.). Understanding Parkinson’s. Retrieved from https://www.michaeljfox.org/understandingparkinsons/index.html?navid=understanding-pd

Wikipedia (2016). Michael J. Fox. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_J._Fox