Actor Alan Alda, best known for the hit tv show MASH as well as acting rolls in many movies, has revealed that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease over three years ago. In an interview on CBS This Morning on Tuesday, Alda said he decided to speak publicly about his diagnosis because his thumb was twitching in recent TV interviews and he thought people would be curious.
But before his official diagnosis, it was a much weirder symptom that tipped him off.
Alda explained that he had been acting out his dreams during sleep.
“I was having a dream that someone was attacking me and I threw a sack of potatoes at him, but what I was really doing was throwing a pillow at my wife,” Alda, 82, said, noting that he didn’t have any other symptoms at the time. It wasn’t until months later that he noticed his thumb twitching.
So, Alda asked for a brain scan and was eventually diagnosed with the disease. Although there isn’t a specific test that can be used to definitively diagnose Parkinson’s, doctors may use brain scans, blood tests, and other exams to rule out other options.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects the nerves and, consequently, movement, the Mayo Clinic explains. Although symptoms may start mildly, they become more severe over time and may include tremors as well as muscle stiffness, slowed movement, impaired balance, and changes in speech and/or writing. The exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but age, genes, and environmental factors may play a role.
Parkinson’s often comes with sleep disturbances, and acting out dreams can be an early warning sign.
Your sleep habits will change naturally as you age, but people with Parkinson’s tend to have more sleep issues than people without Parkinson’s of the same age, the UCSF Parkinson’s Disease Clinic and Research Center explains. Those disturbances may include insomnia, sleep apnea, and vivid dreams.
But if someone is acting out their dreams along with movements or vocalization during sleep, that’s a sign of an REM behavior disorder, a sleep disorder that occurs specifically during the dream-heavy REM stage. Those movements might include kicking, flailing your arms, or punching as if you’re defending yourself during a violet dream (as Alda described), and may be accompanied by laughing, talking, or shouting. These episodes may also gradually get worse.
People don’t normally move during REM-stage sleep thanks to the nervous system process that causes paralysis while you’re dreaming, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, if you are moving during that stage, that suggests there may be an issue affecting that process—possibly a neurological disorder like Parkinson’s.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or symptoms of any other sleep disorder, it’s worth talking to your doctor.
But Alda, who shared that he takes boxing lessons three times a week, said that an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s doesn’t mean your life will immediately change monumentally. “In the beginning, to be immobilized by fear and think the worst thing has happened to you—it hasn’t happened to you,” he said. “You still have things you can do.”