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Michael J. Fox kept his Parkinson’s diagnosis private for about 8 years. Now he’s an advocate

In the decades since the actor's diagnosis, Fox has opened up about life with the disease multiple times.
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991Sipa USA via AP

Michael J. Fox recently delighted fans when he made a surprise appearance at the 2024 EE BAFTA Film Awards. It was a rare occurrence for the acting legend, who stays out of the public eye these days.

At the height of his career, such an appearance was commonplace for the star, but Fox has spoken at length about the challenges that come along with his Parkinson's disease, so any sighting of the star is always met with excitement from his followers.

While speaking with TODAY's Willie Geist in 2020, Fox described how accepting his diagnosis helped change his perspective.

"You eventually come to a place where you go, 'I can do this.' This is just the way it is. It's something that happened to me. It's not something I'm suffering from. It's my reality," he said. "I find that the partner of gratitude is acceptance and surrender."

Curious to learn more about Fox's Parkinson's journey and hear how he's doing these days? Get an update on his health below.

How was Michael J. Fox diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?

Fox's star was on the rise when he suddenly encountered some health challenges in the early '90s.

Per the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the actor developed a tremor in his pinky finger in 1991 while he was filming "Doc Hollywood." After seeing a neurologist, Fox discovered that he had young-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Tracy Pollan and Michael J. Fox
Tracy Pollan and Michael J. Fox in 1991.Ron Galella Collection via Getty

What is Parkinson's disease?

The Mayo Clinic describes Parkinson's disease as "a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves." Parkinson's symptoms start materializing gradually and can begin with a tremor, stiffness or slowing of movement.

There is currently no cure for the condition. However, some of the symptoms can be managed with medication and surgery.

What caused Fox's Parkinson's?

The cause of Parkinson's disease is "unknown," but there are several contributing factors that can cause the condition, including genes and environmental factors, says the Mayo Clinic,

In 2022, Woody Harrelson presented Fox with an honorary Oscar. During his acceptance speech, Fox joked that he and Harrelson "did some damage" in their youth while partying together in the '80s. While talking with CBS Sunday Morning in 2023, Fox addressed the comments and said it is "very possible" that his partying could've contributed to his diagnosis.

“I mean, there’s so many ways that you can … that I could’ve hurt myself,” he said. “I could’ve hit my head. I could’ve drank too much at a certain developmental period.”

The actor continued his explanation, noting that both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the development of Parkinson's.

“Most likely I think is that I was exposed to some kind of chemical. What we say is that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” he said.

How old was Fox when he was diagnosed?

Fox was only 29 years old when he recieved his diagnosis. In a 2020 interview with TODAY’s Willie Geist, the star recalled how his wife, Tracy Pollan, reacted to the news.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “One of the things I’ll always love Tracy for is that at that moment, she didn’t blink.”

While talking with AARP the Magazine in 2021, the star said a doctor initially told him he would only be able to act for another decade after his diagnosis. However, he defied those odds.

“I’m kind of a freak. It’s weird that I’ve done as well as I have for as long as I have,” he said.

Fox wouldn't publicly announce his diagnosis for seven years. Shortly before he did, the star was "heckled" by paparazzi. It's a topic he spoke about during an interview with Entertainment Tonight in 2021.

“It was seven or eight years after I had been diagnosed ... (and) the paparazzi and stuff, they would stand outside my apartment and heckle at me, like, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” Fox said.

When he did go public with his news, Fox said he was relieved to see how people responded.

“It was a great surprise to me that people responded the way they responded. They responded with interest, in the desire to find an answer to the disease, and then I saw that as a great opportunity. I didn’t get put in this position to squander it.”

What is the life expectancy with Parkinson's?

During an interview with CBS Sunday Morning in 2023, Fox explained how falling is a "big killer" for people with Parkinson's disease and revealed that he doesn't expect to live into his 80s.

“It’s falling and aspirating food and getting pneumonia,” he said of possible outcomes. “All these subtle ways that gets ya.’ You don’t die from Parkinson’s; you die with Parkinson’s. I’m not gonna be 80. I’m not gonna be 80.”

Parkinson's disease itself isn't fatal, according to The Cleveland Clinic. Rather, the side effects that come along with the condition are "often contributing factors to death."

The organization notes that the average life expectancy for Parkinson’s disease in 1967 was "a little under 10 years" from the time of diagnosis. Now, that statistic has grown to 14.5 years or more (a 55% increase).

"That, combined with the fact that Parkinson’s diagnosis is much more likely after age 60, means this condition doesn’t often affect your life expectancy by more than a few years (depending on the life expectancy in your country)," the website reads.

As with all health conditions, life expectancy can vary depending on overall health and treatment of the disease. In 2018, the journal Neurology offered up the following conclusion while studying the life expectancy with Parkinson’s disease:

While life expectancy has improved, "he survival is highly dependent on the type and characteristics of the parkinsonian disorder.Patients with Parkinson disease presenting with normal cognitive function seem to have a largely normal life expectancy,” the study reads.

How is Michael J. Fox doing with his Parkinson’s?

Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan
Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan in 2024 in London.Karwai Tang / WireImage

Since he announced that he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Fox has never shied away from speaking openly about his symptoms.

And despite any physical limitations he's dealing with, the star has still held many acting roles since his initial diagnosis. Here are some of his career and personal highlights:

2000: Fox announces his departure from "Spin City"

Fox revealed that he was taking a step back from full-time acting to focus on his advocacy work in 2000.

As the years went on, Fox appeared in several roles on the small screen on shows including “Scrubs,” “Boston Legal,” “Designated Survivor,” “The Good Wife,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Rescue Me.”

2013: Fox stars in his own comedy show on NBC

Three years later, he starred in “The Michael J. Fox Show,” an NBC comedy that was loosely based on his life and portrays a father living with Parkinson’s.

2018: Fox experiences his "darkest moment"

When Fox broke his arm at home in 2018, just months after he underwent spinal cord surgery, he experienced his "darkest moment" when he fell while home alone.

“I just snapped. I was leaning against the wall in my kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come, and I felt like, ‘This is as low as it gets for me.’ It was when I questioned everything. Like, ‘I can’t put a shiny face on this. There’s no bright side to this, no upside. This is just all regret and pain.’”

2020: Fox retires from acting

In his 2020 memoir, "No Time Like the Future," Fox explained his decision to retire from acting.

“The nascent diminishment in my ability to download words and repeat them verbatim is just the latest ripple in the pond,” he wrote.

“There are reasons for my lapses in memorization — be they age, cognitive issues with the disease, distraction from the constant sensations of Parkinson’s, or lack of sensation because of the spine — but I read it as a message, an indicator," he continued.

2021: Fox marks the 30th anniversary of his Parkinson's diagnosis

Fox marked the 30th anniversary of his Parkinson's diagnosis in 2021 while chatting with AARP the Magazine and said gratitude and optimism have helped him during his toughest moments.

“If you don’t think you have anything to be grateful for, keep looking. Because you don’t just receive optimism. You can’t wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You’ve got to behave in a way that promotes that,” he said.

2022: Michael J. Fox honored by family, former co-stars at emotional Governors Awards ceremony

Fox received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 13th Governors Awards in November 2022 to recognize his ongoing advocacy work for Parkinson's disease.

During his acceptance speech, the star spoke about his diagnosis at the age of 29.

“The hardest part was grappling with the certainty of the diagnosis and the uncertainty of the situation,” he said.

2023: Fox talks about life with Parkinson's

While talking with Variety in 2023, Fox revealed that he had broken several bones in recent years as a result of Parkinson's disease.

“I have aides around me quite a bit of the time in case I fall, and that lack of privacy is hard to deal with,” he said.

2024: Fox presents at the BAFTAs

While presenting at the 2024 EE BAFTA Film Awards, Fox got a standing ovation from the audience.

“There’s a reason why they say movies are magic, because movies can change your day. They can change your outlook, and sometimes even change your life,” he said while announcing an award.

Where can I watch the Michael J. Fox documentary?

In May 2023, Fox debuted a new documentary about his life and experience with Parkinson's disease. Titled, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” the documentary followed the star's rise to fame and his health challenges.

You can stream "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie" on Apple TV+. The streaming service offers a seven-day free trial for customers then costs $9.99/month.

What is the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research? 

In 2000, Fox founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. As its name suggests, the foundation's goal is to fund research for the cure for Parkinson's disease and develop improved treatments for anyone living with the condition today.

Per the foundation's website, it has raised more than $1.75 billion dollars since its inception. The foundation's funding has also helped develop more than 20 early-stage therapeutic programs. On the clinical side of things, the foundation has funded and sponsored many clinical trials.

"We aspire to go out of business," the foundation's website reads. "We deliberately hold no endowment or excessive financial reserves. We act with urgency, typically deploying funds raised within a few months for the fastest possible impact."