Dr. Jay Alberts, researcher with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and president of Pedal for Parkinsons, speaks to the Carroll Area Parkinson’s support group at St. Anthony Regional Hospital Monday when he and his team were stopped in Carroll due to RAGBRAI’s overnight stay. Daily Times Herald photo by Betsy Simon
Dr. Jay Alberts, researcher with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and president of Pedal for Parkinsons, speaks to the Carroll Area Parkinson’s support group at St. Anthony Regional Hospital Monday when he and his team were stopped in Carroll due to RAGBRAI’s overnight stay. Daily Times Herald photo by Betsy Simon
Thursday, July 28, 2011

The tick-tock of the clock on the Pedal for Parkinson’s webpage counting down the minutes until RAGBRAI stopped Sunday when Dr. Jay Alberts and his crew set off on this year’s route, educating the public on Parkinson’s disease.

“I do this because I want to get the information out about exercise and Parkinson’s disease, and what better place to do that than in rural Iowa where I grew up,” Alberts told the Daily Times Herald Monday during the overnight stay in Carroll, where he presented his only formal talk during RAGBRAI for the Carroll Area Parkinson’s support group at St. Anthony Regional Hospital.

Alberts is president of Pedaling for Parkinson’s – an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for Parkinson’s disease patients and their caregivers, providing the general public with education about the disease, and offering support for research on treatment and prevention.

Helping those with the disease has become life’s work for Alberts, a native of Sanborn and 1994 graduate of Iowa State University with a bachelor of science degree in exercise science.

He completed both his graduate degree and neuroscience doctoral training at Arizona State University, where he studied the effects of Parkinson’s disease on motor performance and learning.

He is now an assistant staff member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering within Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute and the Center for Neurological Restoration in Cleveland, Ohio, where Alberts resides with his wife Janelle and their two children.

But Alberts always makes it home for RAGBRAI, where in 2003, while on the weeklong bike ride across Iowa with his friend Cathy Frazier that he got his first glimpse at the benefits of exercise on people inflicted with Parkinson’s disease.

With each mile they rode, Frazier, who had been diagnosed with the disease five years earlier, talked about how she no longer felt like she had Parkinson’s, which became evident, Alberts said, when Frazier, whose penmanship had become small and illegible since her diagnosis, addressed a readable birthday card during the weeklong ride.

Initially, Alberts joked that his friend’s improvements must be due to the “clean Iowa air and their steady diet of apple, blueberry and gooseberry pie with homemade ice cream.”

But the researcher in Alberts wondered if there was a correlation between forced exercise and Parkinson’s disease, so over the next several years he has ridden tandem with other Parkinson’s patients and witnessed similar improvements.

“Now, I’m not a medical doctor and patients should consult there physicians before starting an aerobic-exercise routine,” he said. “But if it’s OK, Parkinson’s patients should do aerobic exercises, like biking, stationary running or rowing, and reduce the resistance while increasing their rate, and make sure you’re doing the exercises in a safe environment.”

Most commonly diagnosed in people over age 50, Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the brain that causes shaking and can lead to difficulty with walking, movement and coordination.

Every year, according to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, 50,000 to 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are discovered in the U.S., where an estimated million cases of the disease already exist.

There is no cure for the estimated 4 million to 6 million people worldwide who suffer with Parkinson’s disease, although there are treatments and therapies to lessen the severity of the disease’s symptoms, the National Parkinson’s Foundation says.

Alberts recognizes that his research is only in the clinical-trial phase and is not a cure for the disease, but he said it does make patients more active players in their treatment and holding off the worst of the symptoms.

“We don’t have enough data yet to make a clear link between forced exercise, like on the tandem bike, and Parkinson’s disease, but the research is hopeful,” he said. “Right now, we think it is a treatment to use with people who have an early diagnosis. The single most important thing right now is to slow the progression of the disease in people, but I would love to someday be able to show that forced exercise can slow or even prevent the disease, though.”