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Parkinson's Disease Health Center

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

Experts Say Age and Parkinson's Contribute to Breathing Problems
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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.

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