Interview with Linda Ronstadt: Finding Her Voice Again

The 11-time Grammy Winner Is Speaking Out After Parkinson'a Disease Ended Her Storied Musical Career.

She was the most successful female singer  of the 1970s, with a strong yet nimble voice that produced more than 30 albums during a 40-year career. But in 2013, Linda Ronstadt announced she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that causes muscle tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement. “I can’t sing a note,” says the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, who recently talked with HealthPoint to share what she’s learned from this new health challenge in her life.

When did you first suspect that something was wrong with your health?
I remember singing with Emmylou Harris in 2000 and noticed that I couldn’t do what I wanted it to do with my voice. When you sing, your vocal chords are vibrating thousands of times a second. But with Parkinson’s disease, the vocal chords start to clamp up like a clinched muscle.

What happened then?
The symptoms slowly became worse during the next decade, but I didn’t think about going to a neurologist. If I dropped something, I thought I wasn’t paying enough attention. One of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is that your voice becomes softer. I started to notice that more and more people were asking “What?” after I said something, but I just assumed their hearing was bad. Finally, stuff that had always been easy, like brushing my teeth, became very hard to do. That’s when I decided to see a neurologist.

What was your reaction when you were diagnosed?
Well, I was as very surprised even though my grandmother had Parkinson’s and died of the disease. I tried to tough it out at first but eventually started taking medication.

What’s it like to have the disease?
Your muscles feel like an elastic band that’s been pulled very tight. They hurt and feel sore most of the time. Your clothes feel heavy. Doing everyday things becomes much more difficult. Putting on a shirt, for example, becomes a long journey through a tunnel to get the arm through the sleeve. And it’s hard for me to sit in a movie theater or airplane unless I can totally recline.

What to people need to understand about Parkinson’s disease?
About one million Americans have the disease. Not only is there no cure for Parkinson’s, there’s also no blood test, so detecting the disease before symptoms occur is almost impossible. But there is hope. Right now, for example, scientists are working on an algorithm that can determine whether or not a person has Parkinson’s disease just by the sound of their voice. The research is still in its early stages, but it’s very promising.

What advice do you have for people with Parkinson’s disease?
I tell people to become Loud and Big. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you have Parkinson’s, every movement is difficult and could lead to a fall. You need people to assist you with your daily chores. Handling hot food, for example, is not a good idea if your hands are trembling.

How are you doing today?
I have good days and bad days. If I have to walk a long way, I’m exhausted by the end. I resisted using any kind of walking sticks, but I don’t anymore.  They’re helpful, and I’m grateful.

What has the experience taught you?
Nobody gets through life without having to deal with problems and face challenges. The measure of a person is how he or she faces that situation and deals with it. As I wrote in my book, “Simple Dreams,” you always learn more from failure than success. I really believe that. Adversity is a great teacher.