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A Look at Parkinson's Disease

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A diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease is devastating, but with new research, clinical trials and medications being developed, there's hope we'll soon have the knowledge to cure this tragic (complex, or widely unknown) disease. Here's a look at what we know, how it happens and what you can do to protect yourself against Parkinson's.

What Is Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It progresses slowly, damaging nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine to control movement and mood.

Named for 19th-century doctor James Parkinson, Parkinson's disease affects more than 1 million people in the U.S. Around 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Who gets Parkinson's disease?

The disease affects about twice as many men as women. It usually begins around age 60, but some early-onset cases can occur earlier than 50 years old. There is also a rare form called juvenile parkinsonism, which appears before age 20.

What are the main symptoms?

Early signs of Parkinson's can be subtle and take a long period of time to become obvious. They may also be mistaken as normal signs of aging.

Some early signs of Parkinson's include:

  • Loss of smell
  • Constipation
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
  • Slow or irregular movement
  • A lack of facial expression
  • Loss of automatic movements, such as the ability to initiate walking
  • Speech changes

As the disease progresses, the hallmark signs of Parkinson's become more obvious. These include:

  • Tremors or shaking of the hands, arms, legs or head
  • Rigidity of the limbs and torso
  • Problems with balance, coordination and posture
  • Slow movement (Bradykinesia)

Symptoms of Parkinson's often start on one side of the body, eventually expanding to both sides, though not equally. The tremors typical of Parkinson's make holding utensils difficult, result in handwriting changes and interfere with other movements.

In addition to movement problems, a number of non-motor signs of Parkinson's may arise, including difficulty swallowing or chewing, sleep problems, fatigue, emotional changes, depression and dementia, among others.

Because these symptoms also appear in other diseases, diagnosing Parkinson's accurately can be difficult, but is imperative to developing the correct treatment strategy. Left untreated, the disorder gradually leads to complete disability and deterioration of brain function.

How is Parkinson's disease treated?

Doctors have an array of treatments for Parkinson's disease, from medications to state-of-the-art surgical options to lifestyle modifications. The options are different for each patient, but the right treatment plan can greatly improve a Parkinson's patient's quality of life.

Is Parkinson's survivable?

Parkinson's itself is not fatal and patients can live a normal lifespan, but the loss of muscle control may lead to choking and falls that could result in a life-threatening injury. The survivability of Parkinson's disease depends on the severity of complications that may occur in the late stages of the disorder.

What causes Parkinson's?

The specific causes of Parkinson's disease remain unknown. The medical community's understanding is that Parkinson's develops from several risk factors including aging, genetic predisposition and environmental toxins.

Cases of early-onset Parkinson's are associated with heredity and have been linked to mutations in several genes.

Currently, there is much exciting and hopeful research happening in the field of Parkinson's and other movement disorders, as scientists search to pinpoint an exact cause.

How do I get screened for Parkinson's disease?

No definitive tests for Parkinson's disease yet exist that dependably confirm the disorder. Diagnosing Parkinson's relies on a medical history and neurological examination. Because symptoms often develop slowly, your doctor may need to monitor a person over a long period until the signs of Parkinson's appear consistently.

In screening for Parkinson's disease, doctors may administer trial doses of levodopa, a medication known to help relieve symptoms. A positive response supports the diagnosis.

While CT scans and MRIs appear normal in patients with Parkinson's disease, they can help rule out other conditions. Because other diseases can have similar characteristics but need different treatments, an accurate diagnosis is critical to early intervention with the correct therapy.

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