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PORTAGE — The symptoms came on about a decade ago. Rigidity on the right side of the body. Fidgetiness. Walking like an old man.

Then one day, Dan Castaneda couldn't button a button on his shirt. It was time to go to the doctor.

His family physician in East Chicago admitted him to St. Catherine Hospital. A neurologist diagnosed him with Parkinson's disease.

"I said, 'No, that can't be,' " Castaneda remembered.

He was 43 years old.

He got a second opinion at Rush University Medical Center that confirmed the diagnosis.

"I said, 'I can't be sick. I have 4-year-old twin daughters. I have a job. I have to maintain,' " he recalled.

He eventually came to accept that he had young-onset Parkinson's disease. He told his students at Air Force Academy High School on Chicago's South Side, where he is a Junior ROTC instructor (he retired from the Air Force in 2009 after serving 20 years).

He started participating in the annual Chicago Parkinson's Moving Day walk fundraiser, which this year takes place Sunday at Lincoln Park.

An estimated 10 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease are younger than 50 years old, according to the American Parkinson Disease Association. Though the neurodegenerative disorder typically affects people older than 60, about 6,000 to 12,000 people get a diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson's every year.

But his neurologist at Rush, Dr. Meagan Bailey noted that "just because you were diagnosed early don't necessarily mean you're going to do worse." As she told Castaneda, Parkinson's is a very individualized disease, so there's no telling how severe or progressive his will be.

Now 48, he says, his tremors have gotten worse (he takes medication every four hours to keep them in check), he gets depressed and fatigued, the rigidity has spread to the other side of his body.

"All the things I associate with being a senior citizen are coming into play now," he said. "It doesn't kill you, but it sure does make your life difficult. You have to constantly redefine what's normal for you."

But he still works, still brings his daughters to dance and softball, still does hot yoga and kickboxing.

He even joins his ROTC students during their weekly physical training. Exercise has been found to slow the progression of Parkinson's.

"I try to show the 15-year-olds at school that even with Parkinson's I run circles around them," he said.

The kids he instructs are observant, noticing if he starts shaking or walking slowly. They remind him to take his meds. He said his students "keep me on my toes."

They also accompany him at the annual Parkinson's walk as part of the Soaring Falcons team, along with his friends and family members. Castaneda, an East Chicago native, is married to his wife of 16 years, Jennifer, and has six kids — the other four are adults and out of the house — and two grandchildren.

"It takes a lot of people to support you," he said.

Bailey, the neurologist, said the event not only promotes physical activity among people with Parkinson's but supports much-needed exploration into the disorder causes, about which little is known.

"Right now there's a lot of hope with Parkinson's disease. There's a lot of research, and we're learning new things every day," she said. "We're hoping we'll have better treatments in the future, and we're constantly on the lookout for a cure."


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.