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'It's not a death sentence': Moorhead woman with Parkinson's celebrates her 'normal' life

During this Parkinson's Disease Awareness Month of April, Brenda Keller feels fortunate to be living life much like she did before her diagnosis.

Brenda Keller, a Moorhead woman who has early-onset Parkinson’s Disease enjoys the nice day by sitting outside on her deck on April 27, 2021, in Moorhead. April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Brenda Keller is determined to keep Parkinson’s disease from changing the way she lives her life, and with the help of medication, regular exercise and a positive attitude, it’s working.

Keller, 61, of Moorhead, is among the estimated one million Americans dealing with the chronic, degenerative movement disorder.


Her diagnosis at age 46 was considered an early onset form of Parkinson’s, a condition that usually affects people after age 60.
Keller said her symptoms haven’t changed much over the years, and during this Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month of April, she’s grateful for that.

“I’m still doing almost all the same things that I've been doing all along, so I don't let it stop me too much,” she said.


Dr. Tanya Harlow, a neurologist at Sanford Health in Fargo, specializes in movement disorders, spending nearly 70% of her time with Parkinson's patients like Keller.

She said Parkinson’s develops in the basal ganglia or part of the brain that controls smooth movements, due to a loss of dopamine-producing cells there.

Clinical symptoms include tremor at rest, often starting on one side of the body, muscle stiffness and bradykinesia, or slowness of movement.

In later stages, posture and balance are affected.

Non-motor symptoms early on include depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and constipation.

Later, the risk of dementia increases, but it’s different from Alzheimer's dementia, where there is significant memory loss.


“Their dementia tends to affect executive functioning, which includes things like planning, organization and judgment,” Harlow said.

Parkinson’s isn’t typically a genetic condition, passed down in one’s family.

However, there may be something in people's genetic codes that makes them more susceptible to something in the environment, Harlow said.

One example of that is a higher rate of Parkinson’s among farmers who’ve been exposed to herbicides and pesticides.

One study found Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota have the highest per capita rates of Parkinson’s disease, she said.

Keller’s symptoms began seemingly abruptly 15 years ago.

When she reached out to give something to her husband, her hand started shaking and she had pain in her arm.

“From there, it took a long time to get diagnosed,” she said.


Brenda Keller, a Moorhead woman who has early-onset Parkinson’s Disease is seen at her home on April 27, 2021, in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

She sought answers over the next year or so from several doctors, including at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where initially, she was thought to have a much more serious degenerative brain disease.

When she found out it was early onset Parkinson’s, she was actually relieved, she said.

Though young onset might seem more serious, symptoms actually progress much more slowly over time than those who develop it at an older age, Harlow said.

Keller has been receiving care and treatment at Sanford Health for the past ten years now and takes three different medications to keep her symptoms at bay.

One doesn’t work as well when a patient eats high protein foods, so she has to adjust her diet accordingly.

How would things go if she wasn’t on the medications?

“I’d be shaking a lot more… shuffling and shaking,” Keller said.

Exercise is also key, according to Harlow, especially activity that gets a person’s heart rate up.

It may even slow progression of the disease, she said.

Keller gets her exercise through walking and playing with her grandchildren.

She’s also able to work part-time as an administrative assistant.

“I would say from my point of view, it's not a death sentence... that you can work through it and still be pretty much normal... if you're lucky enough,” she said.

Parkinson’s itself is not a fatal condition, Harlow said; however, patients can die from complications of swallowing difficulties leading to aspiration pneumonia, or falls, causing broken bones or a brain bleed.

Still, life expectancy of someone with Parkinson's is generally only about a year and a half less compared to the general population, she said.

The focus, then, is helping patients with the condition live their best lives.

“I can't cure them, but I can improve their quality of life, and that's really what we want to be doing,” Harlow said.

Related Topics: SANFORD HEALTH
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