Carnett: Progress in Parkinson's research gives hope

April is national Parkinson's Awareness Month.

I know a bit about Parkinson's disease; we've lived together for 17 years.

My father had it for nine years. I received my own diagnosis eight years ago, just before he died. I have an uncle who's exhibiting early symptoms.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, loss of facial mobility, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems and muffled speech.

It's estimated that up to 1.5 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's. Males are twice as likely as females to develop it. Nearly 60,000 individuals are diagnosed annually, and the average age at diagnosis is 60. People as young as 18 have been afflicted, however.

I was diagnosed at 61. My first symptom was a finger twitch.

My maternal great grandmother developed what we now think was Parkinson's in her early 60s, in about 1930. The family called it "shaking palsy." She began with tremors in her hand and later developed balance issues. She died of cancer before Parkinson's could be properly diagnosed.

All is not doom and gloom with this disease, however. With the implementation of an effective treatment plan, symptoms can be controlled or even lessened. Treatment varies widely for individuals.

Numerous drugs are available to control symptoms, though side effects can occur. I've experienced reactions to some medications and, in fact, had to stop taking a couple of them. But, thankfully, there are options.

My advice to people who suspect that they may have Parkinson's: Seek out a good neurologist who's a movement disorder specialist. Physical therapy and exercise can be extraordinarily helpful, and rest and stress reduction are beneficial. I also recommend joining a Parkinson's support group.

I continued to work for two years following my diagnosis. I didn't take medication at the time and found stress to be nearly incapacitating. By my deportment, it became obvious to people around me that something was amiss. After I retired, my stress levels dropped and I began taking medication. Things improved.

When I returned to my old workplace for visits, many colleagues commented on how much better I looked. Perhaps that's because I looked awful when I retired!

The cause of Parkinson's is unknown, but scientists and researchers believe genetic and environmental factors play a role. I have dozens of friends with the disease. Some claim they're the sole members of their families with the malady. Others, like me, have the disease in their pedigree.

Still, a neurologist once told me that even if you have Parkinson's in your family, it isn't your inevitable fate. According to his statistics, 1 in 100 individuals in the general population will develop the disease. People who have the disease in their family face a 2-in-100 chance of developing it.

A friend of mine was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He feels that contributed to his development of Parkinson's. Another was exposed to well water while growing up. Pesticides can leach into underground water sources.

My dad was 75 when he was diagnosed. Our family, at the time, knew nothing about the disease. "Is Dad going to die?" I asked my mother when she informed me of his diagnosis. He lived an additional nine years.

My wife and I recently looked at pictures of our daughter's wedding several years before Dad's diagnosis. It was obvious to us as we looked at the photos that he had the disease then.

I can usually spot a Parkinson's patient in a public setting at 50 paces. I once advised a tour guide of ours in a remote Canadian location to consult a neurologist. It appeared to me he had the disease, though he didn't know it. People in their 60s and 70s frequently attribute symptoms to "getting older."

Parkinson's is destructive and a royal pain in the posterior, but it's not the end of the world.

With all the research that's underway, Parkinson's sufferers have good reason for optimism.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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