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I RETIRED AT THE END OF 2003, eager to enter Act III…except for the annoying, painfully persistent tremor in my right arm. When a movement disorder specialist diagnosed Parkinson’s disease (PD) in 2008, my life changed and my health took center stage. My new neurodegenerative disease script did not include the words “cure” or “happy ending.” Although most people associate Parkinson’s with physical tremors and jerky movements, it has many nonmotor symptoms that affect cognition and emotion as well. By the time movement symptoms show up, 50 to 80 percent of the substantia nigra (the part of the brain that produces dopamine) is dead. The disease affects other parts of the brain and the body, causing unpredictable emotions and scrambling executive functions. In some cases, dementia will surface. Day by day, hour by hour, we truly don’t know what will happen next. Linda Ronstadt, who was diagnosed in 2012, aptly referred to each day as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

Nan Little is a cyclist, author, speaker, mountain climber, anthropologist, teacher, volunteer, flyfisherwoman, wife, mom, grandma, and friend. Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008 at age 62, Nan has cycled across Iowa six times, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekked to Annapurna Base Camp, and hiked the Inca Trail in Peru.


Enter Hope Serendipitously, I learned that fast-paced cycling could possibly slow PD’s progression. In 2009, my husband and I were invited by neuroscientist Dr. Jay Alberts from the Cleveland Clinic to join the Pedaling For Parkinson’s team in the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Without thinking, I lept at the opportunity. I could turn my neck no more than 90 degrees. My right arm hung stiffly at my side. My hand clenched. I shuffled, hunched over, staring expressionlessly at the sidewalk. How could I ever ride 450 miles across Iowa? But Dr. Alberts’ research showed that if people with Parkinson’s rode three hours each week at 80 to 90 revolutions per minute, keeping their heart rate at 60 to 85 percent of their maximum, their symptoms improved an average of 35 percent over just eight weeks. Worried about failing in Iowa, I committed to fast-paced cycling several hours nearly every day, far beyond what Alberts prescribed. Exactly a month later, while walking my

3rd Act magazine | fall 2016

dogs, I noticed both arms swinging freely. I extended both hands with no cramps; I turned my head more than 180 degrees with no pain. I walked gracefully, heel to toe. I smiled and cried. The dogs wagged their tails. That July, I crossed all of Iowa on my bike. I did it again the next year. Not only did my physical symptoms improve dramatically, cognition and emotions improved as well. I felt in charge of myself. Action Beats Apathy One of the most difficult barriers to overcome with Parkinson’s is apathy. With

Nan dips her rear wheel in the Missouri before cycling 450 miles (including many hills) to dip her front wheel in the Mississippi seven days later.

3rd Act Magazine – Fall 2016  
3rd Act Magazine – Fall 2016  

3rd Act Magazine is a bold, fresh, lifestyle magazine for older adults. Well written and informative articles to help all of us age with co...