Category Archives: Parkinsons

Open Call for Interviews on Parkinson’s at Altitude

Earlier this year, our students published some articles on Parkinson’s disease at altitude. One was an account of patients experiencing some relief from their symptoms at high altitude, and another involved a local couple in our region of the Rockies.

We’ve since received a lot of attention to these articles specifically and would like to hear from more people who have any feedback to share about their experience at altitude with Parkinson’s disease.

Feel free to send us an e-mail –

Parkinson’s Disease at Altitude: an Interview with the Locals

In a previous blog post, “Increasing the Altitude to Decrease the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease” a PA student described the relief of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) symptoms experienced by arguably the most influential person with PD in the United States, Michael J. Fox. This got the rest of us thinking, could people living in Summit County who may be faced with this debilitating disease have a decrease in symptoms? I was fortunate enough to interview Nancy and Tom, full time residents of Summit county for the past 11 years, who offered insight to this question. When I started this interview, I was seeking only the facts related to PD symptoms at altitude. But within the first couple minutes I knew it was going to be something much different. 

I met Nancy and Tom in a local coffee shop one morning. First, Nancy came in. She was full of energy, articulate, and eager to answer my questions.  She began the story. Nancy is no novice to PD; she has cared for people with the disease twice in her life. First, with her father and now with her lifelong partner. She has experienced similarities and differences over the course of both of their illnesses. 

Nancy’s father lived on the Front Range of Colorado at the time of his diagnosis. He was 75 years old and had some prior health issues including open-heart surgery. He experienced cognitive changes and within 5 years he was living in a nursing home. These cognitive changes were an indication that the disease was severe and would progress more quickly. He became incontinent and quickly found that he could not care for himself. After fighting PD for 10 years, he passed. Nancy’s mother passed just 3 short months after her father.

During this time Nancy was at the height of her career in education, working long hours, in a world that she describes as “publish or perish”. For her, the decline and eventual death of her father seemed like part of the normal aging process. She cannot recall any clear difference in her father’s symptoms when at altitude versus closer to sea level. She says that his decline was much quicker than her husband’s has been.

For many years Nancy and Tom lived in Denver, but also had a home in Silverthorne. In 2008, prior to his diagnosis they moved full time to Frisco, CO. Nancy describes Tom as always being “fidgety”, but even she admits that fidgety is an understatement.  She was really tipped off that something was wrong when Tom would wake up in the middle of the night and “throw himself off the bed” in a fit of a nightmare. This occurred for several years and was so bad that she couldn’t sleep. Sleep disorders are one of the most common non-motor symptoms of PD and usually increase over the course of disease. It was these symptoms that eventually led them to see a neurologist. He was diagnosed with PD approximately 8 years ago. 

As Nancy and I were speaking Tom strolled in to the coffee shop. Tom is 73 years old and the first thing I noticed was that he was a handsome man with an athletic build, but walked with a slight stooped posture. His gait was smooth, but perhaps not as quick as a man his age without PD. This slow gait is a common symptom of PD and medically referred to as bradykinesia. 

As Tom begins to speak his voice is soft and raspy. He says that his brother and nephew speak the same way and he has attributed this to years of yelling during sporting events and coaching. He has even undergone procedures on his vocal cords. However, it’s hard to know why his speech is so soft, as difficulty with speaking is also a secondary symptom of PD.

Tom grew up in Pueblo, CO, which sits at about 4600 ft.  He was always extremely athletic and went to college on a football scholarship. But he’ll tell you he wanted it to be basketball. He was a long time ski instructor, enjoyed golf, and taught middle school physical education. He was always coaching and motivating his students. Nancy describes Tom as well coordinated and unable to sit still. However, in 1993 he was in an accident where he fell while rollerblading without a helmet. He hit his head, which left him with a subdural hematoma. Tom was admitted to the hospital and underwent surgery. He spent weeks in the hospital and endured intense therapy to regain strength for everyday activities including learning how to drive and shower. 

So, the question becomes has altitude ever played a role in Tom’s symptoms? They have traveled and been on planes since his diagnosis. But the short answer seems to be no, he hasn’t noticed a difference. In one account from the previous blog post on PD, a patient noticed a reduction of symptoms when a plane went above 10,000ft. Tom has been on plane several times, with the most recent being last fall where they flew to Maine to visit their granddaughter. He stated that he did not notice any reduction of symptoms at that time. In fact, Nancy reports that both his cognition and mood were exceptional in Maine. When I asked Tom to recall a time when he has noticed a change in symptoms he said only when he misses a dose of medication or when he is not active for long periods of time. Tom takes Sinemet, which is levodopa, a chemical compound that is converted to dopamine when it crosses the blood brain barrier. It’s one of the only medications that quickly and effectively decreases the symptoms of PD, but it does not stop the progression of PD. 

This led us to wonder, has he potentially become acclimated to living at altitude his entire life? He has been at 9000ft for many years; may he not be reaping the full benefits that could come with intermittent hypoxia? Even when he skis at 11,500 ft., which is only a 2500 ft. increase from his baseline, is that not a large enough increase? 

There are still many questions that are unanswered. And there remain reasonable theories about the effects that altitude can have on a patient with PD. For future families like Nancy and Tom I believe it could be a worthwhile avenue of exploration. But for now, Tom’s symptoms will be controlled with medication and exercise. He still skis, golfs and dances. When I asked about dancing, Nancy laughed as Tom reached over to touch her shoulder. Nancy explained that they don’t go out dancing but “We always dance in the kitchen, even when we had a small kitchen and now we have a big one.” 

This blog post was intended to be scientific and related to research, and while we raised several interesting questions during our conversation, it ended up being much more than that. I am grateful to Dr. Chris for introducing me to Nancy and Tom, which sparked the conversation. I will forever be touched by their story. It’s moments like this in medicine that reminds us as students that even as we’re drowning in studying, clinic hours, and trying to pass exams, that humans are behind every patient. Thank you for sharing your story and I hope you keep dancing in the kitchen for many, many years to come. 

Summit County has a Parkinson’s Disease support group that meet on the 3rd Friday of every month at 10am. For more information visit:

For another article on Parkinson’s Disease in Summit County check out this story from the Summit Daily:

Karisha Schall is a PA student at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona.  During the past year of clinical rotations, she has traveled many places and moved a total of 7 times in Arizona, Colorado, and Washington. After graduation she will be working with the VA hospital caring for Veterans. When not working or studying you can find Karisha listening to music, enjoying the company of family and friends, or finding a way to be active through fitness.  


Loddo G, Calandra-Buonaura G, Sambati L, et al. The Treatment of Sleep Disorders in Parkinson’s Disease: From Research to Clinical Practice. Front Neurol. 2017;8:42. Published 2017 Feb 16. doi:10.3389/fneur.2017.00042

Kumar. “Parkinson’s Disease.” Rocky Mountain Movement Disorders Center, May 1, 2019

Jones, D. “Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s” Department of Pharmacology AZCOM. Midwestern University Lecture. March 14, 2018. 

Driver-Dunckley, E. “Movement Disorders: What you need to know”. Department of Neurology. Mayo Clinic Arizona. Midwestern University Lecture. May 3, 2018. 

Increasing the Altitude to Decrease the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

By Jessica Thomas PA-S

 In May of 2009 Michael J Fox’s “Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” aired on ABC. This special chronicled his decision to battle the effects of his Parkinson’s disease with optimism and hope. During the production of this special he journeyed to the Kingdom of Bhutan. While in Bhutan, Michael J. Fox noted that his symptoms of Parkinson’s disease had almost completely vanished. 

 Bhutan lies between China and India, on top of the Himalayan Mountains. Bhutan is an extremely unique country since it is cut off from the rest of the world and has a desire to keep its culture unaffected by today’s modernization and globalization. Altitudes in Bhutan average 8-9,000 ft above sea level. When Fox’s parkinsonian symptoms decreased, he couldn’t help but wonder about the connection between the increased altitudes and the decrease of his symptoms. 

With more research into the topic it becomes apparent that Michael J. Fox was not the first person with Parkinson’s disease to notice a difference when in the high altitudes. According to Fred Ransdell, author of Shaky Man Walking, he has had two individual experiences where his tremors almost completely vanished. The first takes place whenever he is flying. Mr. Ransdell states that as the plane gains altitude he will remain completely asymptomatic until the plane lands. The second was when he was driving over a mountain pass at 9,000 feet elevation and he states that at that moment he noticed that his tremors were gone. How can this be? 

The first theory for why the increased altitude (>6,000 ft above sea level) decreases symptoms of Parkinson’s disease stems from the pH of our blood. When at higher altitudes we breathe faster and deeper in order to get enough oxygen into our lungs. When we breathe, our body discards carbon dioxide in proportion to oxygen we take in. Knowing this, it is understood that the increase in breathing also causes our body to get rid of more carbon dioxide from our blood which in turn will raise the blood pH making it more alkaline in nature. Naturally our blood is alkaline (approximately a pH of 7.3-7.4), otherwise death would ensue. Acids in our body are generally cell by-products, meaning that when our body is making energy or other necessities to life, they will give off acids. These acids are processed through the lymphatic system. When we have increased acids in our body the lymphatic system can get backed up. The back-up of acids in the body can cause stiffness, pain, and swelling. As the back-up worsens, deeper problems occur that affect the function of the cells and the tissues which can turn off hormone, steroid, and neurotransmitter production. Although this is an oversimplification of the process, it is easy to see that the more acidic the blood is, the more we may see increased symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Correction of this acidosis is thought to preserve muscle mass in conditions like Parkinson’s and help with coordination. 

The second theory revolves around hypoxia and the main neurotransmitter that Parkinson’s disease effects. A study published in Springer titled Intermittent Hypoxia and Experimental Parkinson’s Disease found a link between hypoxia and the increase of dopamine synthesis. We know that atmospheric pressure reduces with altitude and with that so does the amount of oxygen. The reduction in the partial pressure of inspired oxygen at higher altitudes lowers the oxygen saturation of the blood which leads to hypoxia. But what does this have to do with parkinsonian symptoms? The results of this study revealed that a two-week course of intermittent hypoxia training in patients with Parkinson’s disease increased dopamine synthesis in old and experimental PD animals which restored the asymmetry of DA distribution in the brain. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. When these neurons are destroyed, the production of dopamine severely decreases and we see symptoms such as tremors, slowness, stiffness, and balance problems

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research received a research grant in 2018 to study the effects of altitude on Parkinson’s Disease. The study consists of two individual parts. The first part is a focused survey that asks individuals with Parkinson’s about their best and worst experiences with their symptoms during their travels in the last 2 years. The second part of the study will be an in-depth survey that with capture the travel experiences prospectively. 

Maybe we see the decrease in symptoms because of the hypoxia or maybe it is due to the increased pH of our blood, or maybe it is because of something we have yet to discover. With the new study from the Michael J. Fox Foundation on the horizon, answers to this question may be within our grasps. 

Jessica Thomas is a Physician Assistant student at Des Moines University in Iowa. Following graduation Jessica will be practicing family medicine in small town Iowa with an emphasis on preventative care and pediatrics. Over  the course of the last year she has had the joy of living and working in 6 different states around the country and has experienced many different climates and learned how to care for the ailments that occur in the different regions of the United States. When not at work or studying, you can find her reading on her porch swing, watching Hallmark movies in bed on Sunday afternoons, or spending time with her family and friends. 


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