Updated: September 17, 2013 7:14PM
“No one can sing with Parkinson’s disease. No matter how hard you try,” vocalist Linda Ronstadt, 67, said recently in an AARP interview, breaking the news that her diagnosis with the nervous-system disorder spelled the end of her award-winning career.
Parkinson’s affects the voice in some 90 percent of patients, explained Dr. Tao Xie, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, an expert on motion disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. The voice becomes “coarse and breathy,” he said, and “very monotonous.”
Patients also may have trouble speaking at a normal volume, can develop hesitation in speech and variation in their verbal speed, and they may stutter, according to Xie. “On top of that, there can be respiratory difficulty.”
“Parkinson’s disease,” Xie said, “is primarily a disease of elderly individuals with a peak age at onset of 55 to 66 years.” About 1 million Americans suffer from the ailment, including 1 to 2 percent of those over age 65, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, according to Xie. Characteristics include extreme slowness of movement, called “bradykinesia,” rigid muscles, tremors and postural instability.
There’s no cure for Parkinson’s, and in most cases, what causes its onset isn’t very well understood. A variety of treatments, including exercises, medication, surgery and lifestyle changes, may help many of the symptoms, Xie said, but none so far have been very effective in improving the vocal problems.
According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, only one method of speech therapy, an intensive system of exercises, has proven to help at all with the myriad troubles the disorder wreaks on speaking.
“All these changes make high-quality singing difficult,” Xie said.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local