At the height of his career as a NASA astronaut, Rich Clifford went in for a routine physical with his flight surgeon and came out with a life-changing diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease (PD). With no prior knowledge of the condition and only a single, minor symptom—some limpness in his right arm—the diagnosis seemed incomprehensible to Rich, yet threatened to bring his professional life to a screeching halt.
Rich was suddenly facing the harsh realities of PD, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that results in the breakdown of dopamine-producing cells in the brain, leading to impaired movement, tremors, apathy and depression, among other symptoms. The condition is the fastest-growing neurodegenerative disorder in the U.S., with approximately 60,000 Americans diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Nearly one million will be living with PD in the U.S. by 2020, which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).