Best known for playing a wartime doctor on the popular dramatic sitcom M*A*S*H, Alan Alda is now considered a Hollywood veteran at 86. But in 2018, the beloved actor shared that three years prior, he had been diagnosed with his own serious health condition: Parkinson’s disease. Now, Alda is opening up about the “biggest challenge” of living with the condition, and how his outlook on life has changed since his diagnosis—though not his ambitions. Read on to learn what he says is the hardest part of his Parkinson’s case, and what he’s doing to slow the disease’s progression.
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In 2015, Alda came across an article published in The New York Times in which a group of doctors noted a peculiar Parkinson’s symptom they had seen in some of their patients: they were prone to physically acting out their dreams while still asleep, a condition known as REM sleep behavior disorder.
“I realized I had done just that,” Alda shared while speaking with AARP Magazine in 2020. “I had dreamed somebody was attacking me, and in the dream I threw a sack of potatoes at him. In reality, I threw a pillow at my wife. So, believing there was a good chance I had Parkinson’s, I went to a neurologist and asked for a brain scan.” Though the doctor initially discouraged him from getting the scan, citing his lack of traditional symptoms, Alda insisted. “He called me back and said, ‘Boy, you really got it,” the actor recalled.
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Alda emphasizes that since receiving his diagnosis, he’s led a decidedly “full life”: he’s continued acting, launched a popular podcast, and embraced the extra family time he gained during the pandemic’s quarantine stage. When asked by People about the most challenging aspect of living with Parkinson’s, Alda aired a fairly minor complaint: “Tying shoelaces can be a challenge with stiff fingers. Think of playing the violin while wearing mittens,” he quipped.
The actor says that rather than forcing positivity or wallowing in negativity, he focuses on taking his individual challenges in stride. “There’s no point in being optimistic or pessimistic about anything. You’ve just got to surf uncertainty, because it’s all we get,” he explained to AARP. “The silver lining is that I keep getting more confident that I can always find a workaround,” he later told People. “I’m more convinced than ever that life is adapting, adjusting, and revising.”
Now seven years into his Parkinson’s diagnosis, Alda told People he’s still feeling well and thriving. “I’m feeling good and charging ahead,” he told the outlet. “[I’m] doing everything I can to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, which really can be slowed with work,” he said. His everyday routine includes plenty of exercise and physical therapy, not to mention “preparing for my podcast, chasing the geese off my grass, playing chess with Arlene [his wife of 65 years], and binging on Scandinavian TV series.”
The exercise, he says, is key to his continued wellbeing. Alda says he focuses on his physical fitness by walking, biking, and jogging on a treadmill, all of which helps him retain control of his motor skills. “I move to music a lot. I take boxing lessons from a guy trained in Parkinson’s therapy. I do a full workout specifically designed for this disease. It’s not the end of the world when you get this diagnosis.”
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Alda says he chose to open up about his condition to offer a new narrative on what a Parkinson’s diagnosis can mean. “One of the reasons I talk in public about it was it helped remove some of the stigma, because I know people who have recently been diagnosed who feel that their lives are over, and they’re shocked and dismayed,” he told Wall Street Journal. “It’s a common reaction to get depressed, and it’s really not necessary. I mean, it can get really bad, but your life isn’t over. You don’t die from it, you die with it.”
The Marriage Story actor says he keeps his own life perspective light by laughing whenever possible. “Laugh! Laughter is good. That’s one of the greatest benefits of this [pandemic] isolation. My wife and I are laughing more than we ever have. When you laugh, you’re vulnerable. You’re opening yourself up. You’re not protected… But you gain so much through vulnerability. You let the other person in, and that brings us all closer,” he said, adding, “We can’t take ourselves too seriously, even now.”