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What Is Progressive Supranuclear Palsy? Lawmaker Calls Her Rare Neurological Disorder ‘Parkinson’s On Steroids.’

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Updated Sep 18, 2023, 01:23pm EDT


A member of Congress said Monday she won't run for reelection this fall after receiving a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disorder she described as “Parkinson’s on steroids.”

Key Facts

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) announced in April she'd been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease—a more common progressive brain disorder that impacts movement—and had been working hard “to navigate those challenges through consistent treatments and therapies.”

Doctors later changed her diagnosis to progressive supranuclear palsy, a similar disorder that impacts only 5 in 100,000 people, according to nonprofit CurePSP.

Wexton, 55, on Monday said she won’t run for her fourth term in Congress because of the disorder, which affects balance, coordination, speech, eye movement, swallowing and cognitive function.

CurePSP, which raises awareness and money for a cure to neurodegenerative diseases, says those with progressive supranuclear palsy will experience a loss of balance, changes in personality, slurred speech and weakened movement in the eyes, mouth and throat.

Increased difficulty with speech and swallowing is what sets the disease apart from the similar and much more common condition of Parkinson's, according to John Hopkins, and there is currently no treatment that effectively stops or slows the progression of PSP.

The disease is caused by a gradual deterioration of brain cells in several parts of the brain and while it is marginally more common in men than women, there is no known commonality in race, geography, occupation or other demographics.

The life expectancy of those with PSP is typically five to seven years.

Big Number

20,000. That’s how many people are thought to have PSP in the United States, about the same prevalence as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. Parkinson’s disease is much more common, and it is estimated at least 500,000 Americans have been diagnosed. Treatment does exist to treat Parkinson’s and slow its progression, but there is no cure. Those who’ve been diagnosed in the past include former President George H. W. Bush, boxer Muhammad Ali, singer Neil Diamond and actors Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox, founder of the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Surprising Fact

Geoff Miller, the founding editor of Los Angeles magazine, had progressive supranuclear palsy, as did British actor Dudley Moore.

Key Background

Wexton is the daughter of two economists who had a career as a lawyer before she ran to represent the 33rd District in the Virginia Senate in 2013. She resigned her Virginia Senate seat in 2019 after winning a seat in the U.S. House, a change she told the Washington Post was spurred by the election of former President Donald Trump. She defeated a sitting Republican for the seat and flipped the Loudon County seat to Democratic control for the first time in 40 years. Wexton has been married for 22 years and has two sons.

Crucial Quote

“This new diagnosis is a tough one,” Wexton said. “There is no ‘getting better’ with PSP.”


Wexton is the latest member of Congress to face medical concerns. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, has said she won’t run for reelection in 2024 following several medical episodes, including a bout with shingles. She appeared confused during a vote on the Senate floor in July and colleagues in both parties have called for her resignation as they question her mental fitness to continue serving. Sen. Mitch McConnell hs had two episodes of suddenly freezing up in front of reporters in less than two months but has said he will stay on as Senate minority leader and finish out his term in Congress, rebuffing calls for him to step down without commenting on whether he will retire at the end of the current session. Congressional doctor Brian Monahan has explained McConnell’s episodes as bouts of “light-headedness” that could be a result of a concussion or dehydration while dismissing concerns of mini-seizures or strokes in the 81-year-old senator. Several polls in recent months have shown voters are becoming increasingly concerned about President Joe Biden's age. Biden is the oldest U.S. president at age 80 and, if he is reelected, he would be 86 at the end of his second term.

Further Reading

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton Won't Seek Reelection After New 'Parkinson's On Steroids' Diagnosis (Forbes)

Rep. Jennifer Wexton Reveals Parkinson’s Diagnosis—But Plans To Stay In Office (Forbes)

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