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PAINTER: Being a human guinea pig isn’t as easy as it seems

• Mar 26, 2018 at 4:00 PM

I recently became a human guinea pig. I didn’t mind. In fact, I volunteered to be one.

I was asked by my good friend, Jack Perko, if I would be interested in participating in a study conducted by Grand Valley State University. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. He even volunteered to drive me to the test.

Gordon Alderink, director of GVSU’s Biomechanics and Motor Performance Laboratory, and his physical therapy students have been conducting a study on measuring dynamic balance of people who have Parkinson’s disease, as well as people who have not been diagnosed with the disease.

“People with Parkinson’s will often have trouble with walking and balance as the disease progresses,” Alderink said. “Physical therapists have many tests for balance, but most of them are tests for static balance. My research with persons with Parkinson’s focuses on measuring dynamic balance.”

Dynamic balance, he explained, is balance that is required when we move, initiate walking, change direction, turn and stop.

Alderink also wanted to compare results with those without Parkinson’s disease. The volunteers who do not have Parkinson’s were tested on four conditions: regular walking, stopping suddenly, turning and stepping over an obstacle. Participants were matched by age and gender with the participants who have been diagnosed with the disease.

My friend, Jack, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, participated in the study last month.

So, on a Tuesday morning, Jack and I arrived at the GVSU lab in Grand Rapids. I was not quite sure what to expect.

First, I was asked to walk a quarter-mile. No problem.

Then, I was asked a series of questions that tested my memory. This didn’t go as well as I had expected. One of the things I was asked was to repeat a number of words immediately after they were read to me by a physical therapy student. I forgot one of the words.

After some more memory exercises, I was asked to repeat those same words. The only word I could remember is the word that I had forgotten.

Following the memory exercise, I was prepared for taking part in the walking exercises. This entailed wearing Spandex and having a bunch of electrodes attached to my body as I walked so that the students could measure my data on a computer.

You would think that walking as someone without Parkinson’s would be easy. It wasn’t that easy. I had trouble making sudden stops and making turns. I sometimes stumbled and had trouble with my balance. This was quite deflating for someone who used to run 25-30 miles a week. Arthritis in the knees and hips will do that to you.

The memory test especially bothered me when I couldn’t remember the words I was asked to repeat. Age does have a way of chipping away at your memory. One of my attributes in my early years was my ability to remember things. When I was in the Navy, I was the only member of the refueling crew who could remember a step-by-step procedure for setting up a refueling system.

According to the National Institute on Aging, forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. “As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain,” the Institute said. So, I guess I’ll chock up the lapses in memory to growing old.

Those tests have given greater appreciation for those who struggle with Parkinson’s disease. People with Parkinson’s have to overcome much more than me in their everyday lives.

Jack tries to not let Parkinson’s disease stand in his way in enjoying an active life. He is doing everything he can to control the disease, including frequent exercising.

There is no cure, as of yet. Jack constantly researches the latest developments for coping with the disease, and willingly participates in research studies like the one conducted by GVSU.

The GVSU study is expected to be completed by early May. Alderink said his students will present their research to their peers on July 13. I can’t wait to find out the results of their study.

Jack believes that it is important to have as much study and research on Parkinson’s disease as possible. I agree.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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