ANDERSON, Ind. — News that pop music legend Linda Ronstadt is suffering from Parkinson’s disease may actually help people better understand the progressive disease, says one local neurologist.
“The biggest misconception people have is that if you have Parkinson’s that you should give up — that you are about to die,” said neurologist Dr. Caroline Stevens. “You can die from complications from Parkinson’s, but most people will die from something else before they die from the disease.”
Stevens said Ronstadt’s fame and popularity will increase public awareness of the disease, which is progressive in nature and impacts the central nervous system. Parkinson’s disease normally occurs in those ages 60 to 70 and with more people living longer the number of people suffering from the disease is increasing.
In an article posted by AARP.org, Ronstadt, 67, says she was diagnosed with the disease eight months ago. The singer sold tens of millions of records in the 1970s with pop hits like “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.” Ronstadt also blurred the lines of genre crossing over into country, pop and mariachi through her music.
Today, Ronstadt says she “can’t sing a note,” which Stevens said is a symptom of the disease. Stevens is a doctor of osteopathic medicine with Central Indiana Neurology PC, 2101 Jackson St., who practices medicine looking at the body as a whole, rather than treating just symptoms of a condition. She said individual symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease vary and can include speech problems such as a quieter voice. Initial symptoms also include slowness of movement, problems with balance, stiff muscles and tremors.
Diagnosing Parkinson’s can be difficult, Stevens said, because it affects much more than just a person’s movements. She said early diagnosis is important to treatment. Although a person’s genes play a role in developing the disease, some people diagnosed with Parkinson’s have no family history of the disease.
Ronstadt says she began to show symptoms as long as eight years ago, but attributed her inability to sing then to a tick disease. When her hands began to tremble, Ronstadt said she thought the shaking was the result of a shoulder operation.
She said she was “completely shocked” when she finally saw a neurologist and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “I wouldn’t have suspected that in a million, billion years.”
Stevens said there are no blood tests or definitive testing for Parkinson’s disease and a diagnosis is based primarily on a person’s history and physical examinations. She said she has seen people who think they have the disease because they develop tremors and others with the disease who are tremor free.
“Just because you have tremors does not mean you have Parkinson’s,” she said.
While there is no cure for the disease, Stevens said, treatments include physical and speech therapies to allow people to live more productive lives.
According to the American Journal of Managed Care, Parkinson’s disease costs Americans around $10.8 billion each year. This figure includes both direct medical expenses and indirect costs such as lost income, disability payments and medical costs.
Stevens said Parkinson’s disease can create significant disabilities, but there is also a social stigma attached to the disease when it affects a person’s physical appearance.
“You may need a walker or there are other symptoms that can make you look different,” she said.
Ronstadt joins a growing list of famous people who have been diagnosed with the disease and who continue to live productive lives including actor Michael J. Fox, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
“There are a lot of people in Anderson with Parkinson’s disease that still have a lot to offer their community,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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Did you know According to the National Parkinson Foundation, people with Parkinson's disease can experience tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity and stooping. Other symptoms include loss of smell, dizziness, trouble sleeping, quieter speech, constipation and cramped handwriting. The Foundation says the symptoms of the disease are not always obvious and can go unnoticed for an extended period of time before a diagnosis. Memory loss and trouble thinking are not signs of the disease. The Foundation also says the prevalence of the disease in the United States is expected to increase substantially in the next 20 years due to a rapidly aging population.