How similar are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease? When I did a search for the two diseases recently, the first result led me directly to the Alzheimer’s Association. Their website notes that Parkinson’s
disease begins in a part of the brain that governs the realm of movement. And, in December, Insightec, a startup bankrolled by Koch Industries, obtained $150 million in venture capital designed for both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research.
And in the recent book “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It,” authors Andrew E. Budson and Maureen K. O’Connor note the difference between Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia, another disorder which is sometimes mistaken for Alzheimer’s. The term “Parkinson’s disease dementia” is sometimes used for this condition, according to the authors.
One thing that Parkinson’s advocates have that people with Alzheimer’s don’t is a true celebrity advocate who is living with the disease—Michael J. Fox. Maria Shriver has spoken forcefully about her late father, Sargent Shriver, a key figure in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who died of Alzheimer’s. But her message would have been even more powerful if the person speaking was the one afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
In the fall of 2006, two weeks before the midterm elections, Fox emerged as a powerful advocate for stem-cell research to help people with Parkinson’s. After all, Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 29—at least 20 years before early-onset Alzheimer’s typically begins. In an effective commercial shortly before the midterm elections, Fox, visibly shaking, stated that Jim Talent, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri, wanted to “criminalize the science that gives us hope.” (That election would give the Democrats control of both the Senate and the House, and helped position Barack Obama as a viable candidate for president two years later.)
I’ve learned that after all these years, Fox is still doing fairly well. A photo taken about a month ago shows him playing a guitar at his annual fund-raising gala. According to one website, a reason that Fox continues to play guitar is that he is still living a somewhat normal existence. Parkinson’s “is not a nebulous cloud of doom that hangs over my head,” Fox stated. “It’s a set of challenges, and there are rewards in meeting those challenges.”
Fox was recently interviewed by Jane Pauley, and by the end of the session, Fox himself was in tears. “Because it reminded me how much they mean to me,” he said, referring to a 34-year-old mother of three he had met who had none of the advantages that Fox himself has, thanks to his wealth. “We don’t want anything ridiculous—we just want a cure,” Fox stated.