FAIRMONT - It wasn't until celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali announced they had Parkinson's Disease that the public began to learn more about this life-altering disease.
While not a terminal illness, Parkinson's does affect the quality of life for those diagnosed.
"About one in 100 people over the age of 60 are diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease," said Rose Wichmann, manager of Struthers Parkinson's Center in Golden Valley. "It goes to two in 100 people over the age of 70. That's more than MS, more than muscular dystrophy and more than ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease."
Wichmann was in Fairmont on Thursday speaking to a Parkinson's support group at Grace Lutheran Church. She mentioned there are several different types of Parkinson's Disease, and that every person diagnosed has slightly different symptoms.
"Not everyone has the tremors that people associate with Parkinson's," Wichmann said. "We have an acronym called 'TRAP' that lists the four main symptoms, and two or more of these need to be confirmed before receiving a diagnosis."
While tremors are well-associated with Parkinson's, other symptoms are less noticeable, such as rigidity and stiffness in the muscles. There is also the absence or slowing of movements, and posture changes, such as curling over instead of sitting or standing up straight.
"There are about 15 percent of those diagnosed with Parkinson's that never have a tremor," Wichmann said. "But what causes Parkinson's is a group of cells at the base of the brain that produce dopamine. As we age, those cells start to disappear, and about 60 to 80 percent of those disappear before displaying symptoms of Parkinsons."
Dopamine is a chemical that allows the delivery of messages through the brain. Lack of dopamine means signals are not moving as smoothly.
"We say that automatic is broken," Wichmann said. "Those movements you don't even think about, like walking, or rolling over in your sleep. Blinking also goes away, so Parkinson's sufferers have more of a stare. There is a loss of facial expressions because you don't think about if you're going to smile. It's easy for Parkinson's people to be misunderstood because you can't read their facial expressions anymore."
There are also problems with balance.
"When you fall, what happens?" Wichmann asks. "You lean back, arms go out, try to catch yourself. But with Parkinson's ... they're up, they're down. Most of them say, 'I was down before I knew what happened.'"
The slowdown with Parkinson's happens mentally as well.
"What we say is nothing happens quickly with Parkinson's Disease," Wichmann said. "They're not necessarily confused, but just slower in thinking. I have to remember that at the Center, I can't just say, 'Hi,' as I'm walking by, because I'll be to the other end of the hall, and the person starts talking to me. They'll remember, 'That's Rose, and I wanted to ask her about something.'"
Why this happens is still unknown. Parkinson's is not necessarily a genetic disease, although about 10 percent of those diagnosed also have family members with Parkinsons. Environmental factors are a prime suspect.
"Believe it or not, we are right in the middle of the area with the rate of highest Parkinson's prevalence," Wichmann said. "Minnesota is ranked No. 3 in the nation, and wait until you hear the rest of the list: No. 1 is North Dakota, No. 2 is South Dakota, Minnesota is No. 3, No. 4 is Iowa and No. 5 is Nebraska. Could it be that all the pesticides that we spray are causing it? We don't know, but we do know that Parkinson's has been around for centuries."
While there are different types of medications that can help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's, there is no cure.
"We also have an acronym for what we as caregivers and family members and friends need to do for those who suffer from Parkinson's, and that's 'TULIPS,'" Wichmann said.
Ironically, the red tulip is the symbol for Parkinson's Disease awareness.
T is for Time: "The worst thing you can say to a Parkinson's person is 'Hurry up,'" Wichmann said. "It takes more time for them to walk or to rise from a chair, or put a coat on. And do you know what happens if you start telling them to hurry up? They go slower. Not to be defiant, but stress worsens the symptoms of Parkinson's."
U is for Understanding: Specifically with the effects of medications, things a person could easily do for themselves at one point in the day may be impossible later on.
"This is a problem Parkinson's patients face," Wichmann said. "Even in the hospital, nurses might say, 'They were walking around just fine earlier, and now they want a wheelchair? They fed themselves breakfast, and now they want help being fed lunch? They just want attention.' But there are 'on' and 'off' times for them because of responses to medication."
L is for quality of Life: "One of the main symptoms that occurs with Parkinson's but is not reported is depression," Wichmann said. She added it was important for people with Parkinson's Disease to remain physically, mentally and socially active.
"We all know exercise is good for your heart and lungs and body, but studies are also showing exercise is good for the brain too," she said.
I is for Increased awareness of Parkinson's Disease, both the main and the minor symptoms, from the tremors, to difficulty moving to the changes in thinking.
P is for Pills on time: "Even if those pills are 15 minutes late, it can throw off the rest of their day," Wichmann said. "One of the things patients said about going to the hospital is that they lost control of their pill schedule."
S is for support: Along with those suffering from Parkinson's, family members, partners and caregivers need support too.
"That is why there are support groups not just for sufferers, but for those who help care for them too," Wichmann said.
The Parkinson's support group meets every fourth Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont.