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Pope's Frail Health Due to Age, Parkinson's

Experts Say Age and Parkinson's Contribute to Breathing Problems
WebMD Health News

Feb. 2, 2005 -- As Pope John Paul II's condition stabilizes in a Rome hospital, millions are concerned about his overall health.

The 84-year-old pope -- who was rushed to Gemelli Polyclinic around 11 p.m. Tuesday -- suffered from breathing problems following a bout of influenza. Overnight he received hospital treatment for an acute respiratory infection. On Wednesday morning, after sleeping several hours, the pope ate breakfast, drank coffee, and celebrated Mass with his private secretary in his hospital room, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

He is expected to remain in the hospital "a few days," according to a Vatican radio report. "Today there is no reason to be alarmed," Navarro-Valls explained.

The pope's hospitalization was due to an acute attack of laryngospasm -- a blockage of air to the lungs, according to the Vatican.

"It is [due] to a combination of his age, his general frailty, and the quite severe Parkinson's that he has," Duncan Forsyth, a geriatrician and Parkinson's expert at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, England, told Reuter's Health. "Advancing age brings with it increased risk of infection and with any illness, older people take longer to recover and the risks are greater."

Parkinson's disease is due to loss of cells in an area of the brain that affects muscle control. Lungs and chest muscles may weaken, making coughing and clearing the lungs difficult, which may lead to pneumonia. Many patients develop problems swallowing and breathing.

"Parkinson's doesn't affect airways directly, but it does make muscles of the body weak," explains Tharakam Ravishankar, MD, medical director at the Glen Cove Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Long Island, N.Y. "If you're elderly, with multiple health problems, then you are weak. Even an infection that a younger person can bounce back from becomes more difficult to kick. You get tired easily. Your immune system is a little compromised."

The pope was trying to clear phlegm from his throat when coughing, Ravishankar says. "If the muscles are weak -- and there's swelling due to inflammation -- then you have to make extra effort to remove it. That makes people get tired easily. If you continue having trouble clearing it, then you don't breathe enough, you don't get enough oxygen -- crisis develops," he tells WebMD.

Medical treatment typically involves a nebulizer machine that pumps medication into the lungs, he adds. "If necessary, a little tube might be inserted in the throat to remove secretions that are blocking the airway. The main thing is, we want to keep the airway open. He is probably getting antibiotics and steroids to reduce swelling and inflammation," Ravishankar says.

If the pope improves -- and his airways stay open -- he probably will be back at work in several more days, says Ravishankar. "Likely he will be required to stay in bed with a nebulizer for awhile."

Elderly people are particularly prone to develop this problem, whether they have Parkinson's or not, he adds.

"This type of breathing crisis can occur with other diseases, including emphysema, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and stroke," Ravishankar notes. "Elderly people have to be more careful. If they have problems breathing or clearing the throat, they should speak with their doctors as soon as possible -- not wait until a crisis occurs."

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