Shaking Off Misconceptions
Fairlady|May/June 2021
Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common age-linked neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s, yet few know its symptoms beyond the shakes. The reality is that many sufferers don’t shake – and because they don’t know the other signs, they don’t seek treatment early that may help slow its progress.
Glynis Horning

Watching him walk ahead of me to the car after our early-morning swim two years ago, it struck me that my beloved mountain-hiking househusband, Chris, was developing a slight stoop and a shuffle. ‘Straighten up, Sweetheart; lift those feet!’ I chided. ‘You’re not a grandpa yet.’

‘It’s my sandals,’ he shot back with a grin, squaring his shoulders, and I left it.

In the weeks that followed I noticed he was doing fewer laps in the pool. ‘Just taking it easy,’ he said. ‘What’s the rush?’ And because he’s walked quite slowly for years, I left it.

When he began stopping by my home-office desk to ask for back rubs, he told me that after 60 your back gets stiff sometimes. Besides, he’s always been a sucker for a massage. So I left it still.

Then, in September 2019, the unthinkable happened: we lost our older son to depression at 25. Bowed by the sheer weight of grief, I, too, found myself shuffling through life, blind to those around me, even the man who had always been my rock. But the morning he quietly asked whether I’d do the grocery run because he couldn’t get in the car and drive, I snapped to attention. Overriding the objections (‘I’m fine; it’s nothing; don’t fuss’), I booked an appointment with our GP. She sent him straight to a neurologist, who ordered a brain scan.

‘Just wanted to confirm what we already suspected,’ said the cheery neuro at the report-back. ‘Your husband has Parkinson’s.’

‘How can that be?’ I asked, flabbergasted. ‘He doesn’t shake!’

And that’s when we began to learn the reality of this widely misunderstood disease that affects an estimated 1% of us after the age of 60, with 4–5% of cases diagnosed before 50 – and some, like actor Michael J Fox, at only 30.

NO GREAT SHAKES

Parkinson’s was named for British surgeon James Parkinson, the first to describe it in his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’ in 1817. But shaking is just one possible sign of what the doctors explained to us was a complex progressive degenerative disease – with no cure.

The cause is unclear even today, but researchers continue to identify genetic mutations that can contribute to it. When I called Chris’s only sibling, she said, ‘Oh yes, our Great-aunt Bessie had it; it was in our mom’s side of the family.’

‘People with Parkinson’s may find it hard to plan nd accomplish tasks, and to focus in situations that divide their attention, like a group conversation.’

If only we’d discussed family health conditions earlier.

Brain injuries may raise the risk of Parkinson’s. Some have attributed Muhammad Ali’s getting it to years of boxing, though this remains controversial. (‘He was becoming slower to react in the ring, an early sign of Parkinson’s, which led to more head injuries,’ says Sandton neurologist Dr Marcelle Smith). Singer Ozzy Osbourne was diagnosed with it after a bad fall, he told Good Morning America. Chris used to entertain our boys with a tale of having been knocked unconscious for 24 hours when his bicycle hit a lamppost as he sped downhill after school. Could the crash have contributed to this?

Environmental triggers, too, can play a part in Parkinson’s, from pesticides to industrial chemicals. Chris worked at oil refineries for five years.

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