Brian Grant, retired NBA player, discusses life after a Parkinson’s diagnosis and how his foundation is helping people live better with the disease.
You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) at the age of 36, something known as young-onset Parkinson’s, which isn’t talked about as much as it should be. As a professional athlete, how did you cope with the diagnosis, and what motivated you to tackle it head-on through physical activity and nutrition?
When I was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s in 2008, I was shocked but also relieved to finally know what was happening to me. But I didn’t know anything about Parkinson’s and it was a steep learning curve.
I started the Brian Grant Foundation in 2010 to support research, but became increasingly frustrated that nobody could tell me how to live with the disease. As a professional athlete, I have been able to train my body to compete at the highest level. My injuries could always get fixed with medical treatment, and I could train my way back onto the court.
But with Parkinson’s, I had to accept that this was a disease that I was going to have to learn to live with and not let it define me. I started talking to other people with the disease – which, in my opinion, is the best thing anyone can do when they’re diagnosed – and learned from others about what they were doing to live with Parkinson’s.
The people I talked to believe that regular exercise and a healthy diet were among the most important ways to live a good life with Parkinson’s, and that resonated with me as a professional athlete. Plus, researchers were starting to show the impact of physical activity and nutrition on improving Parkinson’s symptoms. That motivated me to redirect the foundation to focus on physical activity and nutrition to help people live better with Parkinson’s.
What are some myths about Parkinson’s that you’d like to debunk?
A lot of people don’t understand that Parkinson’s is more than a movement disorder. This disease affects more than motion. Outside of the Parkinson’s community, people don’t really know that mood, sleep, digestion, and other so-called non-motor symptoms can also be a part of the disease.
For a lot of people I talk to with Parkinson’s, and myself included, non-motor symptoms are some of the worst to try to live with. When I can’t sleep for three nights in a row, it affects my health, my relationships, and my quality of life. If there were more awareness of the different symptoms of Parkinson’s, I think it could help improve understanding of what people with the disease are going through on a daily basis.
Tell us more about your foundation and its key initiatives focused on exercise and nutrition for Parkinson’s patients. How has this made an impact on your battle with Parkinson’s? How has it impacted others and how do you stay in touch with these families?
The Brian Grant Foundation provides tools to improve the well-being of people with Parkinson’s. Our programs focus on exercise and nutrition to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. We work with medical experts to understand how different types of activities and nutrients can help manage and potentially slow down Parkinson’s symptoms.
Some of our key initiatives include training for exercise professionals and rehabilitation specialists to teach them about safe and effective activities for Parkinson’s. Through that training, we hope to build the capacity of communities to develop local programs for people with Parkinson’s. We also have a lot of resources on our website at briangrant.org, including exercise and cooking videos for people with Parkinson’s to try at home.
We take a hands-on practical approach to supporting people to live their best lives. At the end of the day, our main goal is to help people continue to do the things they love with the people they love.
How can patients and their families or caregivers adopt a healthier lifestyle in light of a PD diagnosis? How can they do this together as a team?
Teamwork is the key to a healthier lifestyle with Parkinson’s. When you’re diagnosed with this disease, your family, friends, providers, and community are your teammates. Like any team, working together requires communication and that can be hard when you first get diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
For me, it was really hard to learn to ask for help. But I realized that if I didn’t tell people what I needed, then they couldn’t help me on my path to a healthier lifestyle. I’ve met other people with Parkinson’s who have a hard time telling their family and friends that they have Parkinson’s or talking about their disease with the people they love. But once you open up communication, you can start working together toward your health goals.
What advancements in Parkinson’s research, treatment, and advocacy efforts in general are you most excited about?
I’m really excited about what we’re learning about the ability of exercise to manage Parkinson’s symptoms and improve brain function. When I was first diagnosed in 2008, people weren’t really talking about the benefits of exercise for Parkinson’s. Today, I think most people agree that if there’s one thing that people with Parkinson’s should be doing to help manage their disease, it’s exercise.
And it’s not just because exercise is good for the body in general. Research is showing that certain types of activities can help slow down symptoms. Ten years ago, I felt like I had no control over this disease. Today I feel that if I eat right and get regular exercise, I can live a long, fulfilling life.