When Ralph Polster, 73, sits down, he often shakes his leg.
His wife of 46 years, Barbara, never thought much about it until one day nine years ago when he began rotating his hand. Ralph’s primary care doctor told him there was nothing to be worried about, but his wife was not convinced.
“The doctor is wrong,” she said. “You have Parkinson’s disease.”
She took him to a neurologist and after doing an MRI, her suspicions were confirmed.
“It’s very difficult to watch a vibrant, productive individual deteriorate,” said Barbara of her husband, who gets tired and has lost his confidence to travel.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, neurological disorder of the nervous system, which kills the neurotransmitter in the brain known as dopamine. It is the second-most-common degenerative disease of the brain, after Alzheimer’s. It affects one million people in the United States and an estimated four million to six million worldwide, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
It causes tremors, slowness of movement and rigidity, and it can also affect cognition, one’s emotional health and gastrointestinal functions. The wife of Robin Williams, Susan Schneider, has said the actor was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease at the time of his Aug. 11 death, and was struggling with depression, anxiety and the Parkinson’s diagnosis when he died. Schneider has said that he was not ready to share his Parkinson’s diagnosis publicly.
“People don’t talk about it,” said James Morgan, 55, a Miami lawyer who was diagnosed about six years ago. “It’s OK to reach out for help because it’s a difficult disease with no cure.”
Morgan, a partner with Squire Patton Boggs, has made it a priority to spread awareness.
“I see too many people that suffer because they are afraid to talk about it,” Morgan said. “You see people’s lives change dramatically when they have the resources.”
He joined the South Florida advisory board for the Miami-based National Parkinson’s Foundation and is currently a walk chairman for Moving Day Miami, an annual fundraising event that takes place Oct 5 in Bayfront Park and hopes to raise $235,000.
Morgan, who was introduced to yoga soon after his diagnosis, also advocates for people to exercise regularly. Numerous studies have demonstrated that physical activity for individuals with Parkinson’s has positive effects on muscular strength, balance and quality of life.
“Of all the diseases we see and treat, Parkinson’s is absolutely one where you have to stay moving,” said Dr. Alan Novick, medical director for the Memorial Rehabilitation Institute in Broward. “The more you stay sedentary, the worse you get.”
A fairly new exercise in South Florida that has been shown to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms is dance.
Free dance classes are being offered at Memorial Regional Hospital Fitness Center in the Hollywood and Pembroke Pines locations. The classes began July 29 and plan to continue for at least a year, funded through a $5,000 grant from the National Parkinson’s Foundation.
“It loosens up my muscles. It feels good for a little while after I am through with this,” said Bud Krepcho, 68, who has been attending the class since the beginning. “But I have to keep doing it.”
Dance for PD at Memorial was inspired by an initiative that started in Brooklyn in 2001. The founder, Olie Westheimer, thought of how dancers are constantly learning to move, similar to people with Parkinson’s.
“Music and rhythm allow people to move more controlled and smooth,” said Rob Herzog, the director of fitness and sports medicine at the fitness center in Hollywood. “It has a more-lasting effect throughout the day.”
Other classes found to be helpful are yoga, Tai Chi, music and art therapy. All of which are offered by local support groups like South Miami-Dade ParkOptimist. Their classes take place at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 7410 Sunset Dr.
Joe Glick, 56, a team caption for the group, recommends being part of a support group as it has inspired him to live life to the fullest.
“Everybody who comes in here, comes in with a smile on their face,” said Glick, a former trial lawyer who was diagnosed in November 2012.
The group and all the activities have helped him from becoming depressed, but he still worries about his future.
“Unfortunately, they are nowhere near a cure,” he said.
Some doctors, however, believe that the future is bright, as much research is being conducted on the disease.
“There are many scientists throughout the world dedicated to this,” said Dr. Carlos Singer, professor of neurology and chief of the movement disorders division at the University of Miami Health System. “The more people you have studying this, the more answers come up.”
For more information about the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, visit pdf.org.
For more information about Dance for PD at Memorial Hospital, visit danceforparkinsons.org.
For more information about South Miami-Dade ParkOptimists and their weekly classes and events, call Laura Sastre at 305-537-9929 or visit npfsouthflorida.org.