Fight Song: Musical Research Hopes to Improve Lives of Parkinson’s Patients

IOWA  --  A diagnosis of Parkinson's isn't deadly, but it can be seen as a life sentence.

“You don't die from it, it just wrecks your life,” said Mark Blaedel.

The 73-year-old has been living with Parkinson’s for the past decade.  He has the telltale signs of the disease: a tremor that is only still when he sleeps. Blaedel decided to fight the symptoms of his incurable disease by doing things he’s never done until now.

“I'd never sung before.  No, I was not a singer in any way,” he said.

But soon, he would find his voice for his very own fight song.

“I’ve heard them say, well it's a select group, you have to have Parkinson’s to be in this group,” said Dr. Elizabeth Stegemoller, a Kinesiology professor at ISU.

While there's plenty of singing, don't mistake them for a choir. They are part of a research group led by Stegemoller, who is studying the effects of music therapy on Parkinson’s.

“There’s a lot of research out there right now trying to find a cure or the exact cause of it. I try to focus on improving the quality of life for people who are living with the disease,” she explained.

Her goal isn't to make them better singers; she wants them to improve their breathing and help them strengthen their muscles so they can swallow and speak.  And it’s working.

“We don’t know what it is that helps Parkinson's disease,” said Blaedel.

But he's up for the fight.  When he isn’t singing, you can often find Blaedel shadow boxing.  Like music therapy, something about each roll and hook makes him feel better.

“It takes a lot of coordination.  Especially the footwork is difficult for me,” he said.

There's nothing fancy about the footwork.  The movements in this class are all about function.

“A lot of them have issues with gait and shuffling so we try to--like during the taps for example--make them lift their feet off the ground as much as possible,” said Olivia Meyer, a national boxing champion at ISU, who teaches the class.

“It's crazy that he could be happier now that he has this really bad progressive, neurological condition, but he's a happier person,” said Mark’s wife, Deborah.

She says they’ve learned to live in the moment.

“I prefer to think of myself as his corner man.  That just appeals to me that I’m his support person and I pick him up and push him into the ring,” she said.

Every fighter in this class is doing their best to punch holes in the theory that Parkinson’s wrecks your life.

“Mark sings a lot now.  Maybe he has, but I'm more aware of it now.  He sings around the house.  He just sings a lot,” said Deborah.

“I've been lucky so far,” said Mark.

Some of the findings from Professor Stegemoller's study have already been published in Medical and Rehabilitation Journals for Parkinson's Disease.