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Janet Reno’s death draws attention to Parkinson’s disease

By Kathleen Troher,

The death Monday of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno shined a spotlight on her long battle with the progressively debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Reno served as attorney general from 1993 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton. Just two years after Clinton appointed her, Reno announced at a press briefing that she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At the time, symptoms of her illness were barely apparent, but in the years that followed, they grew increasingly more noticeable. Her cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s, according to a story in The New York Times.

Dr. Andrew Gordon, a neurologist at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., says that people with Parkinson’s do not die from the disease but rather with it.

“Due to reduced mobility, weakness and fragility in advanced cases, Parkinson’s patients may die from aspiration pneumonia, other causes of pneumonia, other infections or from complications of falling,” Dr. Gordon says. “Parkinson’s disease itself does not cause death at all; rather, it gradually weakens the body, leading to increased risk of other medical problems and complications.”

Parkinson’s affects approximately one million Americans, with 60,000 people diagnosed each year in the United States. Those living with the illness are more than the combined number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports.

A neurodegenerative brain disorder, Parkinson’s impairs by killing the brain cells that produce dopamine, a neurochemical that controls motor function. As dopamine decreases, patients are less able to regulate their movements.

Although there is no known cure for Parkinson’s, Dr. Gordon says there are a variety of treatments that can help people who have the disease lead a fulfilling and productive life.

“Medical treatment and physical therapy can improve quality of life and assist individuals with building up their reserves, so that there is greater capacity to bounce back and recover from urinary tract infections or upper respiratory infections, aspiration or falling,” he says.

The four primary symptoms are tremor, or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; slowness of movement; and impaired balance and coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Eventually, patients can lose all motor control, but it can take many years to progress to that level of severity.

“Each individual is affected differently, and the progression is variable from person to person,” Dr. Gordon says. “Fortunately, there are now numerous medications as well as surgery, such as deep brain stimulation, which can help improve quality of life for patients with Parkinson’s disease. However, there is still no cure and no medication that halts the progression of the disease.”

Reno lived more than two decades after her diagnosis. She was 78 years old when she died.

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