We all know that aging can bring on a host of maladies, from achy-breaky creaking joints to neurological disorders and just about everything in between.
As the actress Bette Davis purportedly said, "Old age isnt for sissies."
But one disease that is unknown to most people and one for which there are no national telethons or even much in research dollars, and even less publicity about, is a brain disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. Also known as Steele-Richardson-Olszewski Syndrome, it is most commonly referred to as PSP.
But what exactly is PSP? Succinctly, its a debilitating, degenerative brain disease that causes severe and permanent problems with balance and eye movement that occur because of lesions in the brain. The actor Dudley Moore died from this condition, although technically no one actually dies from PSP but rather complications from the disease such as pneumonia and choking. Patients develop swallowing difficulties and often require a feeding tube.
Quite often confused with Parkinsons disease, its frequently misdiagnosed because some of its symptoms are very similar to Parkinsons. A distinct difference between PSP and Parkinsons, however, is that most PSP patients do not exhibit the typical shaking of the head and extremities that people with Parkinsons do.
One of the most obvious signs of the disease is the inability of the patient to look down. In fact, this visual problem is probably the only real test for PSP. It can be done in your own home without any expensive doctors visits or expensive medical tests. PSP is a sneaky disorder, gradual in onset and often imitating other neurological diseases. But its one that should be considered if you or a loved one is having trouble with balance, gait and eye problems.Falling without any obvious tripping hazards is quite often the first symptom that patients and/or their families notice along with falling backward. Another early and subtle symptom is a change in mood and behavior. This can be perplexing and easily dismissed or attributed to just a bad mood.But it was one of the subtle signs that I picked up on after becoming aware of my own mothers imbalance. My mother and father had been married for over 45 years and were in love and very compatible. So it was a shock to me to hear my mother begin saying negative things about my father. He doted on her, and she on him, so her complaints about him were very disturbing to me.Her falls had become more frequent so the round of interminable doctors visits had begun. She had a battery of tests performed but no one seemed able to pinpoint the cause of her condition.
Finally, one of her physicians astutely observed the problem with her eyes and referred her to a neurologist just to confirm his suspicions.When the neurologist asked my mother to look down, and she couldnt, he confirmed the diagnosis of PSP. We now knew what was causing her symptoms but that was of little comfort.We learned that there is no cure for this rogue disease and no effective treatment either. Anti-Parkinsons medicines were tried to no avail.My mother was diagnosed in 1985, and finally succumbed to this disease in 1993, at the age of 71. Sadly, there has been no progress in the treatment of PSP since then. Most sufferers are male and most patients develop the disease in their sixties.If you or a loved one have these symptoms, get them checked out; it could be PSP, or something less dire. In the meantime, keep it im nind should you feel the need to alert your physician.Sheryl Letzgus McGinnis is a member of the Parent Advisory Board of The Partnership at www.drugfree.org