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Parkinson's Disease Health Center

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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

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.

"I think there has been way too much speculation about this," he says. "For any 84-year-old who isn't in very good health, having the flu can be a very serious event on its own. In the pope's case it could be just a matter of trying to do too much too soon after his last hospital stay."

Symptoms that are characteristic of Parkinson's Symptoms that are characteristic of Parkinson's include tremors, slowness of movement, stiffness, and gate and balance problems. Vitek says the symptoms can occur in any combination and any degree of severity.

Many patients also develop varying degrees of dementia with advanced disease, but the pope has shown no evidence of this in public appearances.

Can He Bounce Back?

If his Parkinson's is contributing to his current health crisis, just what are the chances that the pope will recover? Nirenberg characterizes his long-term prognosis as "very concerning," in part, because his health has been poor for so long.

"Patient's don't die of Parkinson's disease," she says. "They die of medical complications of Parkinson's disease, and pneumoniapneumonia is a very common complication. There is certainly the potential for him to bounce back to where he was before this latest illness, but he would still be very ill."

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