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Community Perspective

April is Parkinson’s disease awareness month

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Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects a person’s movement. Known as the shaking palsy when first documented in medical literature in the early 1800s, Parkinson’s is a movement disorder exhibiting the motor symptoms of resting tremor, slowness of movement (bradykinesia), stiffness or rigidity in movement, and balance and gait (walking) issues. Accompanying non-motor symptoms adds to the complexity of treatment and difficulty in finding a cure. Non-motor symptoms include loss of sense of smell, drooling and swallowing issues, softening of voice, speech issues, constipation, cognition issues, hallucinations, apathy, depression, anxiety, spasms and cramping of muscles, sleep disturbances, dizziness, and fatigue. Also, people with Parkinson’s (PwP) often find that their handwriting becomes illegible (micrographia).

An estimated 1 million Americans are afflicted with PD. An expected 60,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year. Typically, PD is diagnosed in people in their 60s, but early onset, while uncommon, does occur. While no cure is available currently, it is possible to treat the symptoms of this progressive condition. Multiple treatment strategies, including medication, exercise, rehabilitation therapies and surgery tame the symptoms of the disease, allowing many people with Parkinson’s to remain active, productive and employed, able to live a full life for many years after diagnosis.

Scientists have known for decades that when certain brain cells cease to produce dopamine, the person exhibits the motor symptoms associated with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. A major breakthrough in treatment occurred in the 1960s with the introduction of an oral preparation of levodopa. This chemical precursor of dopamine, capable of crossing the blood brain barrier, targets the lack of dopamine in the brain. The PwP is relieved of the manifestation of the motor symptoms for the duration of the medication’s “on” effect.

People with Parkinson’s learn early on that exercise is medicine for them and that staying active with exercise therapy will slow the progression of the disease and improve the quality of their life. PwP report excellent results from walking, running, high intensity interval training (HIIT), dancing, bicycling, swimming, pilates, Rock Steady Boxing, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM). All of these activities are available in Fairbanks.

The cause of PD is not particularly well understood. A number of genes have been identified that increase the risk of the disease. As scientific research continues, it is likely more genes will be revealed to have a link. Environmental factors are considered probable causes also. Exposure to pesticides and herbicides have been studied. Significant head trauma may also be causative. Current neuroscience research is delving into inflammation, gut health, and misfolded toxic alpha-synuclein proteins as contributing to causation.

What is known about PD is that it is a complex disease that manifests itself differently for all of the 7 million people world-wide diagnosed with it. These numbers will only increase as the population ages. To learn more about PD and how people are living with it, visit the following websites. They are a few of the many useful and credible sources of current information, activities and events regarding PD: The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (michaeljfox.org), The Davis Phinney Foundation for Living Better Every Day (davisphinneyfoundation.org), American Parkinson Disease Association (apdaparkinson.org), and Parkinson’s Foundation (parkinson.org).

Research into Parkinson’s disease is impacted by federal health legislation and budget. Contact your elected congressional representatives and urge their support of funding for PD research.

Locally, the Fairbanks Parkinson’s Disease Support Group meets monthly the first Saturday of the month at noon. Currently the group meets virtually over Zoom, but monthly in-person potlucks may resume in the future. Contact Lois Henderson at 907-378-2321 or at loisinak@gmail.com for more information. Also, a support group for the care partners of people with Parkinson’s meets monthly over Zoom. Contact Cheryl Keepers at 907-474-8063 or cherylkeepers@gmail.com.

Elizabeth Schaffhauser is a 40-year resident of Fairbanks. 

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