Jews grapple with Parkinson’s, look to Israel, local sources for help

Jews grapple with Parkinson’s, look to Israel, local sources for help

Parkinson’s disease affects about 1.5 million Americans, and more of them are Jewish than you may think.

A lot more.

In fact, it’s more common among Ashkenazi Jews than among the general population, according to the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF).

“There are certain genetic mutations [that are associated with Parkinson’s] that are more common in Ashkenazi Jews,” said Dr. J. Timothy Greenamyre, director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases.

As the disease afflicts Jew and non-Jew alike, many are looking for treatment and therapies to control its symptoms.

Some are looking abroad to Israel. Others are looking right here at home.

Pittsburghers who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, along with their friends and family, can learn more about what they face on Moving Day — a morning of awareness and fundraising — Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Highmark Stadium at Station Square.

Sponsored by the NPF and the National Parkinson Foundation Western Pennsylvania, (NPFWPA), Moving Day will include a fundraising walk to help improve the lives of the estimated 10,000 people in western Pennsylvania and the tri-state area who live with Parkinson’s.

David Hammerstein, a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation, is one of them.

Hammerstein was in his mid 50s when he started to notice his feet dragging, a minor tremor in his arm and some stiffness in his arms and legs.

Having been in “perfect health” all his life, Hammerstein suspected that he might have Parkinson’s disease.

A diagnosis at the Squirrel Hill Health Center about two years later, supported by neurologists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, confirmed his suspicion.

The disease can start quietly, with symptoms such as loss of sense of smell, constipation, and vague aches and pains, Greenamyre said.  Eventually, though, people will develop tremors, and slowness of movement.

Hammerstein, now 63, has been in search of treatments that will help alleviate his symptoms. He is even looking to Israel for new hope to treat this neurological disorder that has no cure.

“I’ve made some inquiries, and am waiting to hear if I might be able to go to Israel and be considered for a range of treatments,” he said, adding that he hopes that in Israel he might be treated “holistically,” with both conventional and nonconventional therapies.

The Jewish state continues to contribute significantly in the area of Parkinson’s research. For example, the Israeli government has approved the use of medical marijuana to treat Parkinson’s, and researchers at Tel Aviv University recently discovered that the artificial sweetener Mannitol might halt the accumulation of toxins in the brain, which could ultimately lead to a new treatment for the disease.

But for now, at least in the United States, the symptoms of the disease are most commonly treated with medicines and “deep brain stimulation,” a process in which electrodes are implanted within certain areas of the brain; the electrodes produce electrical impulses that regulate abnormal impulses.

So far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved medical marijuana to treat Parkinson’s. “There is very little evidence of its benefits in Parkinson’s,” Greenamyre said.

There is evidence, though, that movement can help to slow the progression of the disease, and to manage symptoms, according to David Von Hofen, director of programs and outreach at the NPFWPA, which offers several movement classes around the city.

“A movement class helps [Parkinson’s patients] move more intentionally, deliberately, and gracefully,” Von Hofen said.

In conjunction with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, the NPFWPA just this month kicked off a series of classes, taught by dancers, that incorporate ballet and other dance techniques to help Parkinson’s patients move, Von Hofen said.

Called Dance for Parkinson’s Pittsburgh, the PBT class will be a feature of Moving Day.

Moving Day also will feature a movement pavilion, open throughout the event, which will offer stretching, yoga, chair-based exercises and other exercises.

“Exercise therapy is big right now,” said Larry Ivanco, research program manager/behavior specialist at the UPMC Movement Disorder Clinic. “It’s good for slowing the progression of Parkinson’s disease and other diseases, and provides maximum benefits with minimum risks.”

Exercise also helps with balance issues, Ivanco said.

“If we can prevent a fall, that’s huge,” he said.

In addition to movement classes, the NPFWA offers many other support programs, including a class for the newly diagnosed, Von Hofen said, and two young onset groups.  

While there is no cure for the disease, many people with Parkinson’s can continue to live with a high degree of functionality.

The NPFWA’s Thursday night young onset group was scheduled to gather this week to see for themselves the possibilities: the group was to watch the premiere of the “Michael J. Fox Show,” a comedy about a newsman with Parkinson’s disease making a comeback.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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