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5 Things You Think You Can’t Do with Parkinson’s (But Can)

Tourist couple consulting a map in a scenic town square

There’s no doubt that a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is a major shock for you, your family and your future. It can be easy for newly diagnosed patients to presume that certain activities are off the table, especially as their disease progresses. But that’s just not true, says Liana Rosenthal, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the clinical core at the Morris K. Udall Center Parkinson’s Disease Research Center of Excellence.

In fact, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease should prompt you to do all you can to stay active and engaged in the world, both mentally and physically. Here are five things you can keep on the “can do” list.

Travel.

If you were contemplating your annual vacation or a trip for a big birthday or anniversary in a few years, get planning, says Rosenthal. “In some cases, accommodations need to be made, such as an adjustment to medication.” Ask your doctor for advice on what to consider. Bear in mind, too, that your body may not be quite as resilient as it used to be, so take extra care not to overdo your schedule. For example, if you will cross time zones, think about adding a day or two onto the beginning and end of your trip to allow yourself more time to adjust. Melatonin can safely be used to help with time zone adjustment. Otherwise? Get packing!

Work.

If you want to continue working, you absolutely can. However, there are caveats about how much and how long you can maintain your career, depending on your profession and how far your Parkinson’s disease has progressed. The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are both internal (fatigue, sleepiness, difficulty concentrating or multitasking) and external (rigidity, slowness, tremor). Not every person will have every symptom, but it’s smart to develop a plan for how you’ll handle relevant job tasks that may be affected by your symptoms. Discuss these plans with your boss or human resources department.

Care for your family.

A lot of people with Parkinson’s disease feel the weight of not being able to do as much to care for their families as they used to, particularly those who still have children at home. It can also be a blow to those who are not great at being the person who is cared for, explains Rosenthal. “It’s important for people with Parkinson’s to understand that even if they can’t do everything they used to, they still have enormous value to their families.”

Exercise:

Not only can you work out when you have Parkinson’s disease, you absolutely should. As far as the research goes, exercise is the only proven way to improve your symptoms and delay disease progression, with cardiovascular workouts — anything that’s heart-pumping, like brisk walking, jogging, dancing — of particular benefit. Some exercise needs adaptation, depending on your experience with the disease and your current fitness level. Don’t assume that you can’t or shouldn’t, for example, sign up for a 5K charity walk/run or go for a hike. This is a myth. Discuss your individual situation with your doctor or a physical therapist or exercise specialist with an expertise in Parkinson’s disease, and then get out there. As Rosenthal notes, “I have patients who are still running faster miles than I can.”

Enjoy a healthy sex life:

“We have no particular reason to say that sexual ability goes down with Parkinson’s disease,” says Rosenthal. There are certainly challenges, but rest assured that a satisfying sex life is not something you have to put behind you after a diagnosis. Treatments for erectile dysfunction can work for Parkinson’s patients, just as they do for non-Parkinson’s patients. Problems that crop up run the gamut: Men may experience sexual problems, like erectile dysfunction, and men and women may have problems with decreased libido. Physical symptoms of the disease, such as stiffness and tremor, may make moving around in bed more challenging. But you can help some of these problems enormously through good self-care. For example, getting enough sleep and exercise can boost sex drive.

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