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Active support: Woman starting group for those with Parkinson's

Sharon Wilson speaks to a group
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Sharon Wilson speaks to a group of senior citizens on Parkinson’s disease in the Active Living Center in Jim Barnett Park on Thursday. Wilson, 67, was diagnosed with the illness two years ago. Rich Cooley/Daily

About Parkinson's

  • Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a movement disorder that is chronic and progressive, meaning symptoms continue and worsen over time. Nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s disease, which is more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The cause is unknown, and although there is presently no cure, there are treatment options, such as medication and surgery to manage its symptoms.
  • PD occurs when a group of cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra begin to malfunction and die. These cells produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that sends information to the parts of the brain that control movement and coordination.
  • When a person has PD, their dopamine-producing cells begin to die and the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases. Messages from the brain telling the body how and when to move are therefore delivered more slowly, leaving a person incapable of initiating and controlling movements in a normal way.
  • About 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, and this number does not reflect the thousands of cases that go undetected.
  • Incidence of Parkinson’s increases with age, but an estimated 4 percent of people with PD are diagnosed before the age of 50.
  • Men are one and a half times more likely to have Parkinson’s than women.
  • Parkinson’s disease can cause several different symptoms. The specific group of symptoms that an individual experiences varies from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:
    • Tremor of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face.
    • Rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk.
    • Bradykinesia or slowness of movement.
    • Postural instability or impaired balance and coordination.
For more information, visit the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation at www.pdf.org.
— Source: Parkinson’s Disease Foundation

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Sharon Wilson speaks to Glen Llewellyn
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Wilson speaks to Glen Llewellyn, 80, of Winchester after a lecture on Parkinson’s disease. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Sharon Wilson is living proof that a Parkinson's disease diagnosis is not a death sentence -- and it doesn't even have to slow you down that much.

Wilson, who is organizing a Parkinson's support group in Winchester, was diagnosed with the disease about two years ago when she was 65. She believes her past as an avid runner, and the fact that she still exercises regularly, helps her body slow the disease's symptoms, like loss of muscle control and balance.

Wilson says she wants to share the importance of exercise with the support group, but that will only be part of the mission. She says other topics will include medical presentations, nutrition and community outreach. Above all, Wilson hopes the group will have a positive impact.

"I just want people to not dwell so much on 'poor me,' but to reach out to the community," she says. "I'm hoping to form strong friendships and [for the group to] be a positive force in Winchester."

For her part, it's all about exercise. Wilson has even organized a walk, run, move challenge series that will run from April through August. Participants get points that are acquired by hours of exercise each week. For example, one hour of exercise equals 10 points, two hours equals 20 points, and so on. The type of exercise is up to each individual. There will be a banquet and awards ceremony in September.

The important thing is to get moving and keep moving, Wilson says, especially with a disease like Parkinson's.

"There's a lot worse things you can have, trust me," she says. "But there's also a lot you can do to help yourself."

And she should know.

When Wilson was 41, she ran her first JFK 50 Mile race, an ultramarathon in Maryland's Washington County that takes runners across part of the Appalachian Trail and requires them to complete the 50-mile course within 14 hours. Wilson has run the race 10 times -- usually finishing in about 12 hours, she says -- competing in her last one on her 60th birthday.

Seven years later, she still runs -- just not as far or as fast. But she believes staying active is key, and says one of the physicians who diagnosed her told her she had done herself a favor by becoming active when she did -- and by staying that way.

Some say exercise can even help with Alzheimer's or dementia, she says, which can be a symptom of Parkinson's.

"Apparently, it's getting the oxygen into your brain," Wilson says of physical activity.

She says exercise is important for everyone, not just those with Parkinson's.

"It's something everyone should know," she says. "Especially when you're starting to deal with aging. You can help yourself."

On Thursday, at the Active Living Center in Jim Barnett Park, Wilson gave her first public talk on the topic to a group of seniors.

"I'm not a medical person," she told the group. "I'm just a person with Parkinson's, so I'm learning more and more."

But, she added, "Daily exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body to help counteract the negative effects of PD and old age. The less physical activity we do, the less capable we become."

Wilson also shared some of the symptoms of Parkinson's, like tremors, adding that people can have tremors that aren't related to the disease. In fact, Wilson's own mother has a tremor in one hand, and at 90 is Parkinson's-free.

When Wilson developed a slight tremor in her late 50s, she though it was just like her mother's. She says she was in denial after her first doctor diagnosed her with Parkinson's.

Wilson urges anyone who is told they have Parkinson's to get a second opinion, like she did. There is no definitive test for the disease at present, she says, but there are symptoms all people with Parkinson's have in common. There is medication to help with those symptoms, and if the medication works, that's a good indicator it is Parkinson's, Wilson says.

Dolores Haynes, who responded to Wilson's ad about the support group a couple of months ago, says her first symptom was difficulty swallowing. Then she developed a quiver in her left hand. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's three years ago at age 65.
"I was kind of shocked, just like Sharon," Haynes says. "But I can't dwell on the disease itself. I've got to be positive."

"Of course, the most vivid vision you have is watching Michael J. Fox on TV when he was diagnosed," she says, adding that developing Parkinson's in one's 30s -- like Fox did -- is rare.

Haynes says she plans to participate in the support group and the exercise challenge, and is thankful Wilson is there to urge her on.

As for Wilson, it is her mission to motivate anyone she can to get moving.

"I don't like exercising all the time," she says. "I just do it, like taking a shower. You don't have to like it, but you need a goal."

An informational meeting about the new Parkinson's support group will be held at 11 a.m. on March 15 at Perkins Family Restaurant & Bakery, at 711 Millwood Ave. in Winchester. For more information, contact Wilson at 304-258-0496 or send e-mail to her at sharonjfk50@frontier.com.

For more information, visit the Parkinson's Disease Foundation at www.pdf.org.

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