Monday, September 6, 2021

Coping with PD, a Primer

This post began as an e-mail to a friend with a beloved relative who has Parkinson’s. It is by no means exhaustive, but I’ll bet if you follow these precepts, you will have a gentler descent into disability than if you ignore them. We are the first generation of PD patients who have most of these strategies available to lessen the force of the blows that PD directs at us, it would be a shame to ignore these tools, they are the advances in treatment all of us with Parkinson’s Disease wish for. 

This is a general guide to coping with PD, based on my 20 years of experience since diagnosis. While a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease can seem like world-shattering bad news, it is actually a moment of empowerment for the person with PD. The problem is now out in the light of day where you can plainly see it and begin to cope. Here are some things to be aware of.

First: intervening earlier rather than later is a key to a slower decline., Studies have shown that the sooner you are on medication, the sooner you do voice therapy, the sooner you institute a regular exercise plan, the less drastic your descent toward disability will be. The lesson here is don't wallow in denial, the sooner you act, the better your long-term outcome.

Second: deal with depression. Talk it over with your neurologist if you are depressed.  (And why wouldn't you be? Your dopamine levels are unnaturally low. At any given time half the population with PD is depressed.) The doctor can prescribe many different medications that are safe and effective. I have taken Lexapro (escitalopram) for almost 20 years now with no detectable side effects. If you don't  deal with depression, your ability to do anything else will be compromised and much more difficult.

Third: Exercise, exercise, exercise. What kind of exercise? The usual advice here is "Anything that you will keep up." That's great, as far as it goes, but the most compelling work done on PD and exercise is by Dr. Jay Alberts, of the Cleveland clinic. His research was done on bicycles and PD.. What Dr. Alberts discovered was riding a bike with a pedal cadence between 80-90 strokes per minute for 30 minutes a session three or four times a week reduced Motor symptoms of Parkinson's Disease by a third, and the benefits lasted for a month after the patient was no longer engaging in the exercise. That is a huge dividend, especially when you spread the results across several years! An indoor, stationary bike will work well for this, although I also ride outdoors.

The other form of exercise that is getting much notice is boxing. Boxing requires speed and balance, which are obvious targets for skill-sharpening in PD. I have done the Rock Steady Boxing With Parkinson’s classes and they were helpful on two levels, the exercise itself was beneficial, and second the group was a great source of fellowship and support. I no longer live near a Rock Steady program, but if I did, I would definitely participate. Other types of exercise that have been found to be beneficial for Parkinson's include Yoga and Tai Chi.

Fourth: Learn as much as you can about the disease. You will have better care if you are not on auto-pilot, doing whatever your doctor tells you. The more you understand about the disease, the better partner you can be to your care team. And besides, the brain is fascinating territory we are just now starting to penetrate. For example, it was only recently that the glial (white) brain cells, formerly thought of as mere packing materials for the gray cells, were found to play a much larger role in many previously unknown aspects of the brain's function, or in PD’’s case, brain dysfunction. That is half the brain that was written off by researchers, essentially terra incognita now waiting to be explored.

There are lots of good Web sites devoted to Parkinson's disease, all the large PD foundations have them. One that I especially like is The Davis Phinney Foundation, founded by Olympic cyclist Davis Phinney  They emphasize the enhancement of the average person with Parkinson's quality of life right now, which is a practical and necessary approach, given that the cure is still years if not decades away. Other organizations with good PD info include The American Parkinson’s Disease Association, The Parkinson's Foundation, and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.    


Fifth: Don't wait to join a support group. There is nothing that can take the place of the  accumulated wisdom of a group. The members will likely have encountered the same rough spots and challenges you will, and can be a rich source of information and solace. Online groups are fine, but they don't have the same gravitas as a live, in-person group.

I only check online groups occasionally, but they can be helpful resources, with the caveat that any Joe Blow can post some cockamamie notion to the group.

Sixth: Don’t prematurely give up the things you love to do because of Parkinson’s Disease. G.K. Chesterton, the British writer once pointed out “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” This would make a fitting  mantra for people with PD. I love music, especially the guitar. PD cruelly targeted my guitar playing, sabotaging my ability to play clean and on beat. It occurred to me that I could adapt my playing and simplify my challenges by moving over to playing the mandolin, which has easier stretches and fewer different pitches to tussle with. It did mean I had to learn a new tuning, but it’s good for your brain to practice novel skills. The result was to add years to my playing in a gigging bar band, and making a unique contribution to our overall sound.  Lately I have been exploring the electric guitar, which is in some ways easier to play than the acoustic.

Whew! That’s a pile of stuff to absorb. There are worse things out there than Parkinson’s Disease. As Bill Bell, co-founder of the Northwest Parkinson’s Disease Foundation says “It’s a good time to have PD.”

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