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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Indy legend Parnelli Jones struggled with Parkinson’s Disease in later years

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

The oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 auto race, Parnelli Jones, died at age 90 on June 4, 2024 after suffering for several years with Parkinson’s disease. He was an American professional racing-car driver who later became a racing team owner and a very successful businessman. He won races in sports cars, IndyCars, sprint cars, midget cars, off-road vehicles, and stock cars.

During his career, he had:

  • six IndyCar wins,
  • 12 pole positions,
  • four wins in 34 NASCAR starts,
  • 25 midget car feature wins,
  • 25 career sprint car wins, and
  • seven Tran-Am wins.
  • As an owner, he watched his driver, Al Unser, win the Indy 500 in 1970–1971.

His Racing Career
Rufus Parnell Jones was born in Texarkana, Arkansas and moved with his family to Torrance, California. He started racing cars at age 17, won his first major championship at age 27 in 1960 and raced in his first Indianapolis 500 at age 28 in 1961, which won him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year award. In 1962 at age 29, he became the first driver to qualify at a speed of more than 150 mph in the Indianapolis 500. In 1963, he won the race. In 1965, he almost won Indy for a second time, finishing second. In 1967, his car broke down while he was out front with three laps to go in a turbine-driven car. After 1968, turbine-powered cars were banned from competition, so that year he started off-road racing and broke the wheels and blew out the front tires. In 1971 at age 38, he won the Mexican 1000 in a record 14 hours and 59 minutes. In 1973 at age 40, he won his second Mexican 1000 in 16 hours and 42 minutes, and in 1974 at age 41, he retired from off-road racing after having suffered a major accident at SCORE International’s Baja 500. He became a race car owner and founded Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1970 and 1971 with driver Al Unser.

Parnelli’s Business Career
He owned: “Parnelli Jones Inc,” 47 retail Parnelli Jones Tire Centers in four states, “Parnelli Jones Enterprises,” a chain selling Firestone Racing Tires in 14 Western United States, “Parnelli Jones Wholesale” that sold and distributed used shock absorbers, passenger car tires, and other automotive products to retail tire dealers, and several wheel manufacturing companies including Rebel Wheel, US Mags and American Racing Equipment.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?
More than a million North Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease in which nerve cells don’t produce enough of a chemical called dopamine. It usually starts after age 50 and causes progressive shaking, stiffness and slow movement, depression and difficulties with memory and thought processes. The face may show little expression, the arms stop swinging as the person walks and speech may become slurred. The symptoms worsen as the disease progresses. Other symptoms include trembling, stiffness, slowness of movement, poor balance and coordination, difficulty walking, talking, chewing, swallowing, or speaking or doing simple tasks, sleep problems, and dizziness on standing up. There is no cure, but medications often improve symptoms temporarily. Some cases run in families. Small clumps, called Lewy bodies, accumulate in the brains of people with this disease and they contain chemicals called Alpha-synuclein that may be the cause of the nerve damage. Some cases may be linked to herbicides or pesticides. Late in the disease, a person may suffer memory lapses, falling asleep during the day, and difficulty staying asleep at night. Exercise can help to reduce risk for Parkinson’s disease (Neurology, July 25, 2023;101 (4):151-152) and may help to treat it (Cureus, 2018 Jul; 10(7): e2995).

Relationship Between Parkinson’s Disease and Heart Problems
Heart problems are often associated with Parkinson’s disease (J Clin Neurosci, 2018;53:1–5) because the nerve damage of Parkinson’s disease is also associated with nerve damage in controlling heart rate and heart contractions (Biomed Rep, 2023 Mar; 18(3): 25). Furthermore, several medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease, such as levodopa, dopamine agonists or anticholinergic agents, can cause abnormal heart contractions and heart rate (Parkinsonism Relat Disord, 2014;20:815–818). Aging, diabetes and being male are risk factors for both conditions. Both diseases are associated with an over-active immune system called inflammation, high blood sugar, insulin resistance and high blood pressure.

Today we have no drugs that cure Parkinson’s disease, but the same anti-inflammatory lifestyle factors that help to protect you from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and several cancers may also help to delay the ravages and progression of Parkinson’s disease. Heart disease is the most common cause of death in Parkinson’s disease patients.

My Recommendations
People with Parkinson’s disease should follow all the lifestyle rules for helping to prevent heart attacks as both share the same associated risk factors:

  • lose weight if overweight
  • exercise
  • avoid smoking
  • do not take in alcohol regularly or excessively (no more than two drinks in a day – I recommend avoidance)
  • eat a healthful diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds
  • avoid sugared drinks, sugar-added foods, red meat, processed meats and fried foods
  • keep hydroxy vitamin D levels above 30 ng/mL

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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