Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton said Monday she will not run for re-election after being diagnosed with a brain disorder she described as “Parkinson’s on steroids.”
The Virginia Democrat had revealed in April that she had Parkinson’s disease, which causes parts of the brain to gradually wear out, affecting movement and speech.
Doctors later changed his diagnosis to progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a similar but much rarer disorder that affects only 20,000 people in the United States.
By comparison, about 1 million people in the United States have Parkinson’s.
The main difference is that PSP causes patients to deteriorate much more quickly, causing more severe symptoms, particularly in speech, coordination and feeding.
People diagnosed with PSP die within a decade of their diagnosis, while Parkinson’s patients can expect to live 10 to 20 years after diagnosis.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton is pictured above with her family. The congresswoman revealed this week her new diagnosis of a rare neurological condition called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).
PSP differs from Parkinson’s in that it usually begins later in a person’s life and worsens quickly. Problems with speech and swallowing are much more common and severe in patients with PSP compared to those with Parkinson’s, and it is rare for patients with PSP to develop tremor, a characteristic sign of Parkinson’s disease.
PSP, a form of “Parkinson’s on steroids,” may be underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed because its symptoms closely resemble those of Parkinson’s disease. However, there are several symptoms that can differentiate the two.
Problems with speech and swallowing are much more common and severe in patients with PSP compared to those with Parkinson’s, and it is rare for patients with PSP to develop tremor, a characteristic sign of Parkinson’s disease.
Another distinction is that some treatments successful in managing the symptoms of Parkinson’s patients often fail in patients with PSP.
Although people with Parkinson’s disease may respond to medications or deep brain stimulation, these treatments are rarely helpful in people with PSP.
PSP symptoms worsen very quickly, leaving sufferers severely disabled within five years. In Parkinson’s disease, there are five stages that progress much more slowly, approximately every two to five years. Most people who have had the disease for 18 to 20 years are in a wheelchair.
The cause of PSP is unknown, but some research suggests that it involves damage to cells in specific areas of the brain, primarily the brainstem, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
PSP often occurs randomly without a known cause, although in extremely rare cases it arises from a genetic mutation that provides faulty instructions to brain cells.
Other theorized causes include exposure to unknown environmental factors that damage the brain and cellular damage caused by free radicals or reactive molecules produced by cells.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton, 55, Reveals She Has ‘Parkinson’s on Steroids’ and Will Not Seek Reelection
Rep. Jennifer Wexton announced she will not seek re-election after receiving a diagnosis of a rare form of progressive Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease occurs when nerve cells or neurons in an area of the brain that controls movement, called the basal ganglia, are damaged or die. Normally these cells produce dopamine, but when they deteriorate and produce less of the hormone, it causes movement problems.
As with PSP, scientists don’t know what causes these neurons to die.
Symptoms of PSP may include difficulty controlling the eyes and eyelids, loss of balance, difficulty speaking, difficulty walking or swallowing, changes in judgment, forgetfulness, personality changes, and difficulty finding words.
The condition can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, suffocation or head injuries from falls.
Aspiration pneumonia, when food or liquid is inhaled into the airways or lungs instead of swallowed, is the most common cause of death in people with PSP.
People with this condition are also at increased risk of falls and head injuries that could lead to death.
There are no current tests or brain imaging to definitively diagnose the condition, and a doctor will often review your medical history and perform physical and neurological tests.
Additionally, doctors will perform extensive examinations to help rule out other similar disorders.
In some cases, brain imaging of a PSP patient may show a reduction in upper brain steam, which can help doctors examine brain activity in certain areas.
At this time, there is no cure for the condition. There are also no effective treatments to stop or slow the progression of PSP, and symptoms generally do not respond well to medications.
However, walking aids can reduce the risk of falls, special glasses called prisms can reduce difficulty looking down, and supervised physical activity can keep joints limber.
Wexton revealed in April that he had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, but in a statement issued Monday said his symptoms were not being controlled. With additional medical opinions and testing, doctors modified her diagnosis to PSP.
The congresswoman said: ‘This diagnosis is difficult. There is no way to “upgrade” with PSP. I will continue with treatment options to control my symptoms, but they don’t work as well for my condition as they do for Parkinson’s.’
Mrs. Wexton said she will not seek re-election when her term ends and will instead “spend my valuable time” with her husband and children.