Thursday, June 4, 2009

Better living through Parkinson's Disease



ABOVE: A typical person with Parkinson's altruistically escorts a Boy Scout across the street.

Are you industrious, a straight arrow who is detail-oriented, a bit risk-averse, and perhaps rigid in personality? Sigmund Freud might call you "anal", but a modern neuroscientist would suspect that you might be a person with Parkinson's Disease.

Leave it to PD to make "anal" sound like the more desirable diagnosis.

Other "Parkinson's Personality" traits mentioned by doctors who have extensive contact with Parkinson's sufferers include drive, ambition, altruism and cleanliness. There is a nice look at this phenomenon by the Boston Globe here.

In past conversations with people who work with Parkinson's patients, I have asked why anyone would go into such a depressing and frustrating field. Frequently the reply was that as a group we Parkinson's patients are an unusually pleasant lot. What's more, recent research found that People with Parkinson's Disease are less prone to lying than the average Joe. The study claims "Patients with Parkinson's Disease are indeed 'honest', and that this personality trait might be derived from dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex." You can find the whole abstract here.

Now consider: If you put "honest" together with "industrious", then toss in "altruistic" and "clean", you've got a fair approximation of the Boy Scout Law.

Which leads us to the startling question "Is dysfunction making me a better person?" And since PD is a progressive disease, will I get even better as I get worse? More altruistic? More ambitious? Cleaner? And how do you measure something like ambition in Parkinson's disease?

The height of ambition for me to get from the bed to the bathroom when I wake up in the morning. It takes a while for my meds to kick in, and until they do, I can only shuffle inches in the time it takes other people to go from bed to bathroom and back. In fact I got lapped this morning by my wife who passed me twice on my trip there between 6 and 7 a.m. (OK, my Parkie honesty compels me to admit that was a joke. And not only that, my "risk averse" side is pleading with me to take it out. But my altruistic side wants you to have a laugh...)

The implications here go way beyond Parkinson's disease. Assuming the world would be a better place if people were more honest, should we cheer the demographic reality that many more PD cases will be on us as the boomers enter their declining years? And will we have to stop calling them the declining years, and instead refer to them as the "inclining years"? Will con men start faking Parkinson's Disease, the better to win the confidence of their marks?

And if all that's not enough, what is going to happen when word gets out about how you can take off unwanted pounds by tremoring and involuntary spastic movement? Yes, I cannot tell a lie.

Parkinson's Disease is slimming.