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Is the Pope's Parkinson's to Blame for Illness?

Experts Analyze the Impact of Parkinson's Disease on the Pope's Current Condition
WebMD Health News

Feb. 25, 2005 -- The word from the Vatican Friday was decidedly upbeat, a day after Pope John Paul II was rushed to the hospital for the second time in a month with a serious breathing problem.

The 84-year-old pontiff was said to be breathing on his own with no signs of pneumonia after undergoing surgeryundergoing surgery to cut a small hole in his neck to help him breathe.

The latest crisis was originally said to be a relapse of the same breathing problems that led to his hospitalization for 10 days earlier this month. But there is increasing speculation that the long-frail pope's ongoing medical problems may be driven by his lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease.Parkinson's disease.

Although it is not clear how long Pope John Paul has had the progressive movement disorder, experts tell WebMD that there are many signs that his disease is in the late stages.late stages.

Neurologist and Parkinson's specialist Melissa Nirenberg, MD, PhD, of Columbia University Medical Center says the pope's stiffness, stooped posture, and that he seems to have so much difficulty moving are all indications that his disease has progressed.

"He looks like someone who is undermedicatedundermedicated, but that may mean that he is no longer responding well to the medication he is on," says Nirenberg, who is a spokeswoman for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. "Usually the longer a patient has had the disease the less benefit they get [from medication]."

The Impact of Parkinson's Disease

Nirenberg says the pope's latest medical crisis could have been caused by a bacterial infection acquired during his bout with the flu. Such infections are common in the elderly and among people who are already debilitated by a chronic disease like Parkinson's.

But she suspects he may be suffering from a lung infection that is also common among people with advanced Parkinson's, caused by the aspiration of food into the lungs.

Many people with late-stage Parkinson's have difficulty swallowing their food.difficulty swallowing their food. Food can end up in the lungs instead of the digestive tract as a result, leading to recurrent lung infections.

She adds that the pope's Parkinson's symptoms may have also made it more difficult for him to get over the viral flu infection, which led to his earlier hospitalization.

"Patients like the pope, who develop markedly stooped postures due to their Parkinson's, can have difficulty taking deep breaths, which is a normal mechanism for clearing the lungs of infection," she says.

Speculation Premature

While he acknowledges that the pope's Parkinson's disease could be contributing to his current medical problems, The Cleveland Clinic neurologist Jerrold Vitek, MD, PhD, says there is really no way to know. Vitek has conducted Parkinson's research for almost two decades.

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