Parkinson’s disease, which now afflicts close to one million Americans, and gained center stage attention this week when yet another celebrity revealed that her professional career had been brought to an end as a consequence of this condition. Singer Linda Ronstadt has released a new book of memoirs and in it she reveals that she, like 60,000 Americans each year, was given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, a disease characterized by progressive degeneration of the brain.
There are a variety of pharmaceutical interventions offered up for Parkinson’s patients. And each day when I’m seeing a new patient with this disease one of the first questions I ask is, “What are you doing to treat this disorder?”
I typically get a list of drugs, dosages and how often the pills are taken.
It’s then that I feel compelled to explain that the potpourri of pills that they’ve been given actually do not treat the disease at all. They simply manage the symptoms. And this distinction is fundamentally important. By and large, giving symptom-managing medications to Parkinson’s patients is about as far as the standard doctor-patient interaction goes. And that’s like treating the smoke and ignoring the fire.
It turns out that lifestyle choices are critically influential in determining how rapidly a patient’s functionality will decline over the longer term. So while medications that can help with the Parkinsonian tremor and rigidity clearly have their place, physicians need to look at the broader picture and ask themselves what information they can provide to patients that can help preserve their ability to participate in life’s activities in the longer term.
Recently, an important brain protective chemical was identified that is associated with a dramatic slowing of decline in Parkinson’s patients. This novel chemical has been shown to provide aggressive brain antioxidant protection, helping to reduce the damaging effects of villainous toxins called free radicals.
What’s more, it has been discovered that this brain protective substance actually serves as the precursor for such brain supportive chemicals as vitamin D, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
It is called cholesterol.
Yes, the very same cholesterol that has been demonized for decades as the cause of everything from heart attacks to who-knows-what is actually one of the most important players in brain health.
Specifically in relation to Parkinson’s disease, a recent study published by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Harvard revealed a direct relationship between higher cholesterol levels and slowing in the rate of decline in the 744 Parkinson’s patients they followed. Those whose cholesterol levels were the highest faired significantly better and maintained higher levels of functionality in the long run.
We need to take notice of reports like this, as this kind of information will no doubt lead to changes in how we respond to advertisements in medical journals calling for us do everything we can to “aggressively lower cholesterol.”
We’ve got to pay attention when the FDA mandates warnings on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs indicating they can affect brain function (as they rightly did in 2012).
As a practicing neurologist, I’m grateful to have medicines that can help control symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But more needs to be done to gain a fuller understanding of the processes that underlie the actual brain degeneration. And now that this information is coming to light, patients deserve to know the full story.
Knowledge is empowering, especially as it relates to putting out the fire.
So here are some ideas for Parkinson’s patients to discuss with their treating physicians:
1. Ask one simple question: “Do I really need to lower my cholesterol?”
2. Don’t refrain from foods that contain cholesterol like grass-fed beef, free range chicken, and even free-range eggs.
3. Add supplemental fats to your diet like extra virgin organic olive oil, nuts, seeds, and coconut oil.
Add Coenzyme Q10, a nutritional supplement, to your program. We generally recommend at least 400mg daily. Research confirms that this supplement slows the decline in Parkinson’s patients.
4. Reduce carbohydrates in your diet.
5. Get regular aerobic exercise, and concentrate on exercises that move opposite sides of your body in rapid succession like using an elliptical machine.
6. Make sure you take enough vitamin D to get your blood level up to around 70-80ng/ml. This may require up to 5,000 or even 10,000 units of vitamin D3 daily.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com