I suspected something was wrong when I had to help the older man with his jacket.
I was on a flight to JFK airport in New York. I noticed his hands shaking, but I didn't say anything. That is, until I realized it was actor and science-communications advocate Alan Alda.
It didn't surprise me when, shortly after our encounter, he announced that he had Parkinson's disease.
Nearly 1 million Americans have Parkinson's, with about 160 new cases diagnosed every day.
Parkinson's disease is a disorder that attacks the neurons in your brain. Specifically, it affects the neurons that make dopamine. They're located in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. The substantia nigra is important in motor movement, learning, and addictive behaviors.
When these neurons break down, it affects that region of your brain. That's why you might experience tremors or lose your balance. Other early symptoms include cramped handwriting, stooped posture, or stiffness in your arms and legs.
Another early symptom is one that Alda noticed: uncontrollable movements during sleep.
It was Alda's own curiosity that led to a diagnosis. He'd read an article about these uncontrollable movements and how they relate to Parkinson's. He went to his doctor and requested the diagnostic scan. His request ended up detecting the disease early. That meant he could start medication and lifestyle therapies earlier and potentially slow down the progression.
This is why we urge our readers to take control of their own health and be their own advocates. If you have any of the symptoms we mentioned above, begin a conversation with your doctor today.
There is no cure. But early detection is key for better management of the disease. Your doctor likely will prescribe a dopamine-replacement drug. But there are also several therapies you can try to help you manage your symptoms.
1. Tai chi. I've written before about the proven benefits of the low-impact exercise tai chi. Several studies have highlighted how it helps with balance and reduces falls in people over 65.
A study out of the Oregon Research Institute showed that tai chi also improved symptoms for Parkinson's patients. They did a randomized control study for folks with mild to moderate Parkinson's. Those who participated in the tai chi program had better results for things like strength, gait, and number of falls.
Tai chi is a good way for Parkinson's patients to improve balance and work on motor control. Many senior centers and local gyms offer classes.
2. Boxing. Boxing training involves hitting bags or pads on your instructor instead of getting into the ring. It helps with things like coordination and agility.
A popular program designed for Parkinson's patients is Rock Steady Boxing. The program includes throwing a variety of punches, coordinating footwork, stretching, and even some circuit training. The idea is to keep your muscles and nerves working to reduce symptoms from Parkinson's.
A 2018 study from the University of Indianapolis looked at folks who took part in Rock Steady Boxing. It found that those who took the classes had better walking speed and endurance than those who didn't. You can find Rock Steady classes in about 150 gyms across the country, in every state (including Hawaii). Check out the site here.
3. Dancing. According to the Parkinson's Disease Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, the ideal exercises for Parkinson's are aerobic and learning-based ones. Exercises that challenge participants to change "tempo, activity, or direction" are best.
Dancing, it turns out, fits these requirements. And Alda once said in an interview that he marches to the music of John Philip Sousa to keep active.
A review from Cardiff University in the U.K. looked at several randomized studies on dance. The dance programs improved motor movements, balance, and walking speed in Parkinson's patients. Not to mention, dancing is a great mood-booster, as we've written before.
Now, in addition to these three add-on therapies, there's one more you should consider. Behavioral changes also come with Parkinson's. As the brain changes, you may notice behavioral symptoms. That includes apathy, anxiety or depression, stubbornness, obsessiveness, or trouble focusing or organizing.
Finding a good counselor or therapist goes a long way to help manage these symptoms. And don't forget the caregivers. If you're taking care of someone with Parkinson's, it's important to care for yourself. Find a support group and allow yourself time to attend the meetings.
Do you have any additional therapies for Parkinson's you'd like to share? Drop us a line at [email protected].
What We're Reading...
- An introduction to Parkinson's and its effects.
- Parkinson's and personality changes.
- Something different: Travel is getting easier as long as you're vaccinated.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 15, 2021