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On this World Parkinson's Day, one author offers a very personal--and hopeful--view of preventing the progression of the disease.

I have had a very personal investment in understanding Parkinson's disease. When I was eight years old, my father struck an overhead steel cable with his head while he was driving a farm tractor. He spent several days in the hospital with a concussion, and when he returned home, he just wasn't the same person.

My super-dad became a scary dad. With a lot of patience and considerable professional intervention (the sort of thing that one just didn't talk about in the 1960's, going to see the psychiatrist), the family was able to adjust to his personality changes. What my father wasn't able to accommodate was early-onset Parkinson's disease that seems to have been triggered by the blow.

At first my dad had unusual mood swings and a slight, barely noticeable tremor in his left hand. It took over 30 years for the occasional tremor to become constant motion, and another 5 years for constant motion on the left side of his body to become constant motion of both sides of his body. The mood swings and personality changes got worse and worse until eventually he didn't remember anybody in the world, sometimes, except my nephew and me, but even on the last day of his life, 42 years after the initial injury, my father had moments of wit, and warmth, and humor.

In those 42 years, my father managed to run a farm, keep up with his buddies from his wartime days in the Pacific Theater in the Marine Corps and his college days playing football at Princeton and playing baseball at Southwestern. He had sufficient wits about him to get elected to a county-wide political office five times even though he was a member of one political party and, by his last term, over 90% of his constituents were members of the other, and make thousands of public appearances required by his job.

After my father's retirement at the age of 68, he managed to attend to the needs of my mother as she was dying of cancer and to maintain an active social life that included literally hundreds of people. Even at the age of 80 he was capable of performing daddy and grandpa duties.

My father's life was by any measure difficult, but he had one thing going for him that most people who have Parkinson's do not. He kept active even when activity was awkward, frustrating, and unsuccessful. He kept on trying even when he did not succeed. It turns out there is a neurological explanation of why a character trait of persistence helps Parkinson's patients hold on to their basic abilities.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Maril S, Hassin-Baer S, Cohen OS, Tomer R. Effects of asymmetric dopamine depletion on sensitivity to rewarding and aversive stimuli in Parkinson's disease. Neuropsychologia. 2013 Feb 16. doi:pii: S0028-3932(13)00045-6. 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.02.003. [Epub ahead of print].
  • Verreyt N, Nys GM, Santens P, Vingerhoets G. Cognitive differences between patients with left-sided and right-sided Parkinson's disease. A review. Neuropsychol Rev. 2011 Dec. 21(4):405-24. doi: 10.1007/s11065-011-9182-x. Epub 2011 Sep 29.
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