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What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Author: Judy Edwards, BSSW, MCRP, Social Work Navigator

Parkinson’s Disease

It is estimated that Parkinson’s affects nearly one million people in the United States and more than six million worldwide. Continue reading to learn about the symptoms of Parkinson’s and how Four Seasons can support your loved one with Parkinson’s.

What is Parkinson’s Disease and Symptoms

Parkinson’s disease (PD) occurs when the brain stops making dopamine, a chemical that coordinates movement, which leads to symptoms like tremors, slowness, stiffness, and walking and balance problems. For this reason, PD is often referred to as a “movement disorder.” But other symptoms like constipation, depression, memory problems, and other non-movement symptoms are also common in people with PD. Parkinson’s is a lifelong, progressive disease, so its symptoms slowly worsen over time.

Each person’s Parkinson’s experience, over the course of a lifetime, is unique. As symptoms and progression vary from person to person, there is no way to predict which symptoms a person will have, when they will have them, or how severe they will be. While there are broad paths of observed similarity, as the disease progresses, there is no guarantee any one person will experience what they see in others. 

Causes of Parkinson’s

Researchers believe that Parkinson’s is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Environmental exposures, such as pesticides and head injury, are associated with an increased risk of PD. But for most, there is no clear exposure that doctors can point to as a straightforward cause.

Some unavoidable risk factors include aging, which is the single greatest risk factor for Parkinson’s. The average age at diagnosis is 60, however, some people are diagnosed with PD at 40 years of age or younger. Men are diagnosed with Parkinson’s at a higher rate than women, and Caucasians more than other races and ethnicities.

Diagnosis

There is no blood test, brain scan, or other tests currently available that can be used to make a definitive diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Doctors diagnose Parkinson’s “clinically,” meaning the diagnosis is based on a person’s medical history, answers to certain questions, and a physical examination.

 Any clinical diagnosis rests heavily on the doctor’s expertise and judgment. If a person suspects they may have Parkinson’s, they should see a neurologist with specialized training in Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. Likewise, ongoing treatment by a neurologist who is a specialist in movement disorders is critically important as the disease progresses.

Medications are available to lessen Parkinson’s movement and non-movement symptoms, making it possible for people to lead fulfilling and productive lives for many years. There are also surgical interventions, such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) and focused ultrasound (FUS), which may be an option for certain symptoms. While invasive and not for everyone, DBS can be an option in cases where medication side effects or complications outweigh a medication’s benefits.

While there is no cure or therapy to stop or slow the progression of PD, great strides are being made. Therapies to address movement symptoms and expand options for non-movement symptoms are improving.  There is much a person can do to take control of their journey with Parkinson’s.

6 Tips for Moving Forward with Parkinson’s

Although there isn’t a true cure for Parkinson’s, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to live more easily with this disease.

  1. Exercise regularly, within your body’s limits.
  2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  3. Learn more about Parkinson’s.
  4. Build up a support system.
  5. Find a movement disorder specialist to serve on your care team.
  6. Get involved in the Parkinson’s community, including research and medication trials.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis is a life-changing event; however, most people find acceptance and quality of life after they begin to understand the disease process and the hope that can be found in the overwhelming strides medical science is making to improve the lives of those with Parkinson’s disease. Being proactive about Parkinson’s has many benefits, bringing hope to those with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, their families, and loved ones who support them.

Learn more about Parkinson’s and the fight to end this disease from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research!