Fighting Parkinson’s

September 4, 2012

LIMA — Harold Wollenhaupt gets a lot of attention when he attends the Lima YMCA’s Parkinson’s exercise class.

He’s not a celebrity — it’s well-known actor Michael J. Fox who brought Parkinson’s disease to national attention. Harold, 73, is just an Elida resident who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about a year and a half ago. No fame, no national spotlight.

But at the Y, Harold is the star of the class, because he’s currently the only one in it. And although he said the trainers are young and pretty — his wife Rosa Wollenhaupt likes to tease him about that — Harold is willing to give up his one-on-one status to encourage more locals with Parkinson’s disease to sign up for the class.

“I tease him because he gets all their attention,” Rosa Wollenhaupt said. “No one else is in the class.”

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that destroys nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a chemical involved with movement and coordination. As the levels of dopamine drop, it is increasingly difficult to control movement, according to, the website for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

About 1 million people — statistically more men than women — in the United States has Parkinson’s disease and an estimated 7 to 10 million people around the world have been diagnosed. It’s estimated, however, that thousands of cases go undetected, according to the website. And only about four percent of cases are diagnosed before the age of 50.

Which is why many times the symptoms of Parkinson’s are blamed on aging. According to Lima neurologist Ahmad Anouti, symptoms can start even before a patient is diagnosed, starting slowly and progressing over time. The disease can be well advanced before a diagnosis is made, he said.

“Some people just present with only some of the symptoms. Everybody can have a different presentation, that’s why there is often a delay in diagnosis,” Anouti said.

And the symptoms are wide ranging. According to the foundation website, symptoms can include any or all of the following:

• Tremors of the hands, face, arms and legs

• Slowness of movement

• Stiffness in the limbs and trunk of the body

• Impaired balance and coordination

Anouti added that pain, memory issues and changes in speech can also be par for the course with Parkinson‘s. These symptoms may require other types of interventions, like speech therapy. But the disease is essentially a movement disorder, he said. For mobility-related symptoms, physical therapy and movement rehabilitation play important roles.

This is where the YMCA class comes in.

With one-hour sessions twice a week, the class devotes half of the time to stretching and balance and the other half to walking on a treadmill. Harold said his floor exercises include rising up on his knees and turning his shoulders. While on the treadmill, he practices walking forward, backwards and doing side steps.

According to Anouti, stretching can help with range of motion and strengthening the core muscles of the abdomen helps with maintaining mobility. Getting up from chairs, rolling in bed and getting out of bed are just some of the mobility challenges people with Parkinson’s face.

The exercises used in the YMCA class are based on research conducted by Wisconsin doctor Terry Steffen for the Wisconsin Parkinson’s Association, according to Josh Unterbrink, YMCA health and wellness director. The exercises and the treadmill work specifically target balance and coordination.

“(The exercises) stave off effects of Parkinson’s, improve mobility, independence and confidence in their ability to walk,” he said. “It’s difficult for them to think they can do this. They have legitimate fears, they’re nervous about falling, especially if they’ve never exercised before.”

Potential class participants can have those fears alleviated. YMCA staff have been specially trained in the exercises, and everyone registering for the class is given an assessment by Lima Memorial Health System therapy staff to make sure they are a good fit for the program, Unterbrink said.

Anouti refers patients with Parkinson’s to the Y class and said they are very happy with it.

And Harold Wollenhaupt is happy as well. Since starting the class in February, both he and Rosa agreed that there has been an improvement in his symptoms.

“It’s easier to walk, and my balance is better,” Harold said. “I would recommend this class to others.”

Even if it means sharing the attention of those young and pretty trainers.