Special Feature: Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s Disease

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Michael J. Fox became a household name in the U.S. His success in the TV series “Family Ties,” and cult classics including the Back to the Future series, Teen Wolf, Doc Hollywood and others made him a popular actor; a young guy full of energy and a lifetime of roles ahead of him.

However, it was his Parkinson’s diagnosis and drive to support further research that has really cemented the path toward his legacy.  At the early age of 29, he struggled with his Parkinson’s diagnosis for seven years before he went public with the news in 1998. He began his mission to bring awareness and advance more funding and support for a much-needed area of research.

In assisted living environments, a Parkinson’s diagnosis is not uncommon. Assisted Living Education will review the characteristics of Parkinson’s Disease, as well as developments from Michael J. Fox and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Parkinson’s Disease: Basic Facts

Parkinson’s Disease (PD)  is a neurodegenerative disorder recognized by many from its distinctive features, such as tremoring, slowed movement, changes in posture, speech, and more.  Often times, many people are more familiar with the classic motor symptoms of the disease, but The Michael J. Fox Foundation does a great job of highlighting both the motor and non-motor attributes:

Motor Symptoms:

  • Bradykinesia – a slow-down and loss of spontaneous and voluntary movement.
  • Rigidity – unusual limb stiffness or in other body parts
  • Resting Tremor – an uncontrollable movement affecting a limb when it’s at rest and stops for the duration of voluntary movement.
  • Postural instability – difficulty standing or walking, or impaired balance and coordination
  • Other Physical Symptoms, including gait problems and reduced facial expression

Non-Motor Symptoms

  • Cognitive Impairment – a decline in the ability to multi-task/ concentrate and possible decline in intellectual functioning
  • Mood Disorders – depression and anxiety
  • Sleep Disorders – REM Sleep disorders, in which individuals act out their dreams
  • Low blood pressure when standing
  • Constipation
  • Speech and swallowing difficulties
  • Unexplained pains, drooling, and loss of smell


It’s estimated that about one million Americans live with Parkinson’s Disease, with men being 1.5 times more likely to develop the disease than women. Most diagnoses come later in life, typically between the ages of 60-80, though symptoms can begin appearing around 50 years old.

However, as in the case of Michael J. Fox, there are people who are diagnosed much earlier in life. If diagnosed before the age of 50, it is considered Young-Onset Parkinson’s Diagnosis (YOPD). There are varying estimates as to the incidence of YOPD, but it may be around 10% of all Parkinson’s diagnoses.

Daily Life

Depending on the progression of the disease, therapies, and medicinal treatments are in place, some Parkinson’s symptoms are manageable. However, as the disease progresses, managing the symptoms can require more intensive treatments. 

When Michael J. Fox makes his public appearances, he still appears to have the same vitality as he always has. Obviously, his physical manner have changed with the effects of Parkinson’s and medications he’s on, but his drive and intensity are clearly still present.

Despite this, what strikes many who have PD is the level of fatigue they experience. There are physical and mental roots to this fatigue. The Michael J. Fox Foundation describes this fatigue as existing on a “cellular level” since the body is putting more effort into completing tasks that many other individuals take for granted. Additionally, coping with these changes in an individual’s body is mentally and emotionally taxing.


Some individuals with Parkinson’s develop dyskinesia, which are abnormal, uncontrolled, involuntary movements. The Michael J. Fox organization describes its appearance as fidgeting, writhing, head bobbing, or body swaying.

Dyskinesia does not manifest in all individuals with Parkinson’s. There are a few factors which contribute to its development, which include early-onset PD and complications of Levodopa use, which has been the primary medication used in the treatment and management of Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s develops in part to the loss of dopamine production in the brain.

Levodopa facilitates dopamine production in the brain and helps reduce the motor symptoms commonly associated with the disease. (Side note: Levodopa is also combined with Carbidopa, which helps enhance Levadopa’s effectiveness, in addition to curbing the nausea and vomiting side effects.) However, because the effect only lasts so long, Carbidopa-Levodopa must be taken several times throughout the day to help maintain the dopamine levels. Even so, a fluctuation in dopamine levels still occurs, which is commonly referred to as an “on/off” period; the “on” being when the medication is still working, and “off” when it’s worn off, typically before the next dose is due.

The Future of Parkinson’s Disease

There is no cure for Parkinson’s Disease yet, but Michael J. Fox has truly spearheaded efforts to bring awareness, funding, and more research towards developing new treatments. Since its inception in 2000, the Michael J. Fox Foundation has funded more than $750 million into research to expedite a cure for Parkinson’s Disease.  He’s hosted annual galas with celebrity guests, done numerous interviews, and of course, provides numerous educational tools through the foundation’s website.

In the meantime, much of the research being conducted in the field is producing new results in early intervention and factors in predicting or accurately diagnosing PD, as sometimes the symptoms can resemble other conditions in its early stages.

Assisted Living Education will continue to post developments in newer treatments or therapies involved with Parkinson’s Disease.

Assisted Living Education is a premier provider of classroom-based and online coursework for professionals in assisted living. We offer RCFE licensing, continuing education, and consulting in specific areas like compliance, staff training and licensing. Please visit our contact page to reach us for any inquiries.


About Assisted Living Education
Assisted Living Education has been operating in and improving the growing senior care industry for over 15 years. Founded by certified RCFE administrators, Jane Van Dyke-Perez and Bill Perez, we have licensed more than 1,100 assisted living facilities and built close relationships with the California Department of Social Services, assisted living managers, owners and industry professionals. As senior living care educators ourselves, we strive to contribute our knowledge and skills to continually improve senior care and the satisfaction of those working in the industry.