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Fighting Parkinson’s disease with music

News staff writer

Last Saturday, more than 300 Parkinson’s disease patients and their caregivers danced to the music of an
old-time string band – a memorable step for people who suffer the chronic disease that causes progressive
difficulty with physical movement for nearly 1 million people in the United States.

They had gathered at the Birmingham Marriott for The Victory Summit, an all-day symposium to help
Parkinson’s patients improve the quality of their lives as they deal with symptoms such as tremor of the
hands, arms or legs; stiffness in limbs or trunk; slowed movement, and impaired balance and coordination.

As UAB physical therapy professor Matt Ford told the attendees, “Music works. When you start to move to
music, you see an immediate effect.”

So the people with Parkinson’s first practiced walking to music of increasing tempos played by Flying Jenny.
Then Joyce Cauthen, the guitar player for the band, taught them a simple dance – swing your partner with
right elbows linked; swing your partner with left elbows linked; swing your partner while holding both hands;
then everyone join hands in a giant circle and walk left, and then right.

Watching it all from the stage was Duncan Blair, a Parkinson’s disease patient and banjo player with Flying

Blair said he was expecting the smiles he saw among the dancers as they repeated the dance again and

“You can’t play anything sad on a banjo,” he said.

After Blair was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 46 in 2003, he learned that music can alleviate some
symptoms in Parkinson’s. It seems that the rhythm of music improves the ability to walk.

For people without Parkinson’s, “if we move to music, our muscle activity becomes more symmetrical –
better coordinated, working more efficiently,” said Ford. For people with Parkinson’s or people who have
had strokes, “It’s known that music enables better walking.”

Researchers call it “rhythmic auditory stimulation.”

If Parkinson’s patients walk at increasingly faster paces, to tempos set by music or a metronome, they get a
longer stride, quicker cadence and increased speed.

And Parkinson’s patients, Ford said, need to keep as active as possible.

“Becoming less active is a problem with Parkinson’s disease,” Hood said. “Some people would label the
symptoms of Parkinson’s as accelerated aging.”

The music and Saturday’s dance also were examples of how to help Parkinson’s patients break
self-imposed social limitations that may stem from fear of looking or sounding different.

“A person may withdraw from activity,” Ford said, “and become psychologically, socially, spiritually inactive.”

On Saturday, Ford had expected about half of the Parkinson’s patients to join the dance. Instead, nearly
everyone got up and joined.

Two ways to look at it:
Blair himself is an example of a Parkinson’s patient who is not withdrawing from activities or social
interaction. He is also an example of early onset Parkinson’s – only 4 percent of people with Parkinson’s are
younger than age 50 at diagnosis.

Blair swims at the Lakeshore Foundation, a place that he says “takes people who have been dealt some
setback and gives them a chance to remake themselves.”

He’s on the board of The Parkinson Association of Alabama. He has joined a Parkinson’s Therapy Group
that meets weekly at Mountain Brook Baptist Church.

The therapy group is just patients, not family members, said Joe Boone Abbott, the 77-year-old therapist
who leads the group.

“We deal with the difficulties in their lives,” said Abbott, who himself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s four
years ago. “Not with the disease itself but the backwash of the disease.”

Blair has brought his banjo and played for fellow members in the group.

“It’s very helpful for freeing people up” from muscle rigidity, Abbott said. “It helps people relax more. I think
movement and dance is real important for morale.”

Parkinson’s forced Blair to retire from his law practice.

He has used that as an opportunity for new ventures.

He started a Great Books reading and discussion group at Emmet O’Neal Library.

And recalling his major in philosophy at Vassar College, Blair has enrolled in Philosophy 341, The History of
Philosophy from Descartes to Hume, at UAB.

“It’s a blast,” he said. “I feel eager when I go to class. … It’s the same intellectual vigor as law.”

Blair took up banjo playing about 17 years ago when his wife gave him one of the plunky stringed
instruments as a birthday present. He got good enough at clawhammer playing to win the old-time banjo
category at the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention, and he joined Flying Jenny, which he calls
“the love of my life, right after my wife.”

After he developed Parkinson’s, Blair thought of stopping.

“At times, I thought, I can’t play the way I used to,” he said. But he decided to stick with it, and he came up
with the idea of putting on the dance for part of Saturday’s meeting.

All of this fits with his attitude about living with Parkinson’s.

“You can look at it as the end of your life, or the beginning of the end of your life,” he said of the pessimistic
approach. “Or, you can look at it as the beginning of a completely new and unexpected phase of your life.”
“You’ve got to tell yourself,” he said, “that it’s a chance to do things you wouldn’t have otherwise done.”

E-mail: jhansen@bhamnews.com MUSICXX — MUSIC: Disease doesn’t stop banjo picker

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