14 Things Most People Don’t Know About Parkinson’s Disease
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic neurological disorder characterized mainly by problems with body movements, although other symptoms may also be present. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease, and one of the most common movement disorders.
It occurs when the brain’s nerve cells (called neurons) degenerate, leading to a shortage of dopamine – a neurotransmitter involved in controlling body movements.
As Parkinson’s progresses with time, the amount of dopamine produced by the brain decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally.
Parkinson’s disease is life altering but not life threatening.
Who can develop Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease generally affects people who are more than 60 years old, though younger people may also develop it (rare). The risk of developing Parkinson’s increases with age, and it affects both men and women – though men are 50%[i] more likely to get it than women.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, an estimated 1–2% of individuals above the age of 65 years are affected by Parkinson’s, and more than 4% of the population by the age of 85 years.[ii]
What are the common risk factors associated with Parkinson’s disease?
The most common risk factors associated with Parkinson’s disease are:
- Age: Young people rarely get Parkinson’s disease, which generally begins in middle or late life. People normally develop the disease at the age of 60 or more.
- Heredity: The chances of developing Parkinson’s disease increase slightly if a close relative suffers from this disease. However, the risks are still very low unless many relatives in the family suffer from this condition.
- Gender: Men are generally more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women.
- Environmental Factors, such as:
o Exposure to toxins like chemical pesticides
o Head injuries
What are the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
The four key motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:
- Tremors (hands, arms, legs, jaw)
- Stiffness or rigidity (arms, legs, trunk)
- Slowness of movement
- Postural imbalance (i.e. poor balance and coordination)
Non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease may include:
o Muscle Pain
o Sleep disturbances
o Cognitive changes
o Fear or anxiety
o Urinary problems
An important thing to remember is that symptoms can vary from person to person. Early stage symptoms may be barely noticeable – such as a very slight shaking of hands, difficulty in walking and/or postural imbalance. However, over time the symptoms may get progressively worse.
How many people have Parkinson’s disease in India?
Although many contradictory figures exist, it is estimated that at least 6 million[iii] Indians suffer from Parkinson’s disease. This number will continue to grow with rising aging population and life expectancy.
Although the risk of Parkinson’s disease increases with age, statistics show that men are slightly more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women.
What causes Parkinson’s disease?
Like many neurological disorders, the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown. However, scientists and researchers are researching to uncover other possible causes, such as genetic and environmental factors.
Is Parkinson’s disease inherited?
Although in most cases Parkinson’s disease is not necessarily inherited – i.e. transferred from the parent to the child – researchers have found that people with a first-degree affected relative, i.e. a parent or sibling, have a 4-9% higher chance of developing Parkinson’s compared to others.[iv]
What this means is that if a person’s parent has Parkinson’s, their chances of getting it are 4-9%higher compared to others.
How is Parkinson’s disease diagnosed?
Parkinson disease is diagnosed after a thorough neurological examination. This is best done by a neurologist who is a movement disorder specialist. As several diseases can mimic the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, it is important to exclude these after a thorough clinical examination and appropriate tests, such as brain imaging.
What other diseases can mimic the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
There are many diseases that can mimic the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Their treatment is different from that of Parkinson’s disease.
Some of the diseases whose symptoms may resemble the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are:
- Brain infections
- Diffuse Lewy Body Disease
- Dystonic tremor
- Essential tremor
- Huntington disease
- Multiple System Atrophy
- Neuroleptic drug use
- Progressive Supranuclear Palsy
How is Parkinson’s disease treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease as of now. However, there are several treatment options available to manage the symptoms, such as:
- Supportive Therapies
What this means is that treatment options can help control the symptoms so that a person with Parkinson’s disease can maintain as normal a life schedule as possible – through treatment including supportive therapies.
As research continues to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, studies have demonstrated that if treatment is started immediately or shortly after diagnosis, the quality of life of a person with Parkinson’s (PwP) can be managed more effectively.
Symptoms can usually be controlled effectively via a combination of therapies, which may include:
- Medication: Medication is used to increase the levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter chemical) that reaches the brain, stimulate the parts of the brain where dopamine works, and block the action of other chemicals that affect dopamine (like acetylcholine) – through drugs like:
o Levodopa (the most widely prescribed medication)
o COMT Inhibitors
o Dopamine Agonists
o Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAO-B inhibitors)
- Surgery: Surgery can benefit some people by improving certain symptoms and reducing the need for medications (sometimes). Although surgery is effective for a small group of people and does not provide a cure for Parkinson’s, it can help control symptoms better.But even after successful surgery, a person with Parkinson’s needs to take continuous medication. The two main types of surgeries used to manage Parkinson’s are:
o Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS)
Although Stem Cell Therapy for treating Parkinson’s disease is being heavily researched, it is not yet a recommended treatment option anywhere in the world.
- Supportive Therapies: A combination of supportive therapies, i.e. exercises and treatments – by trained professionals – can help improve the overall quality of life and keep a person with Parkinson’s (PwP) active and healthy via:
o Physiotherapy – to improve general health and fitness – and decrease slowness in movement, stiffness, gait and balance problems.
o Yoga – to gently increase flexibility and balance – via stretching movements and poses.
o Speech Therapy – to improve clarity and volume of speech – via tips and techniques for better communication.
o Occupational Therapy – to help perform these tasks more easily via changes and modifications:
- dressing up
- personal hygiene
- getting up from a bed, car, chair etc.
o Diet and Nutrition – to help ease symptoms such as constipation (very common), difficulty in swallowing and eating, heartburn, etc. – by eating a healthy and appropriate diet to enhance the effect of medication.
o Counselling/Psychotherapy – to help adjust to current conditions and improve the quality of life through different means.
o Cognitive Rehabilitation – to help address problems like forgetfulness, difficulty in concentrating and paying attention, planning, etc. – via appropriate tips and strategies.
o Creative Therapies – to promote a sense of well-being via art, music and dance. Dance and movement therapy (DMT) is playing an increasingly important role with physiotherapy to improve movement related problems.
o Pet therapy – (through dogs, cats, etc.) can help increase flexibility, movement and – just as importantly – emotional health.
o Meditation – to reduce stress and pain, and improve general sense of well-being.
How can I help a relative who’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?
If someone in your family has been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, you should:
- Discuss the state of your relative with a qualified medical professional
- Get a proper medical check-up
- Strictly follow the medical practitioner’s advice
- Help provide proper assistance in daily living activities
- Motivate the relative to pursue the treatment
- Ensure a caring and friendly family environment
- Maintain a diary to note down the dos and don’ts so that important suggestions and instructions are followed
- Consider Supportive Therapies (appearing under How do you treat Parkinson’s disease? above)
Can people die from Parkinson’s disease?
Although Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder, it is not a fatal disease.
Since symptoms tend to worsen over time and make life difficult, people with Parkinson’s disease (PwP):
- experience a decreased quality of life by not being able to perform daily movement related functions, such as getting out of bed unaided and driving
- may eventually be forced to stop working due to progressively disabling symptoms
What are some interesting facts about Parkinson’s disease?
A few interesting and less known facts about Parkinson’s disease are:
- Google co-founder Sergey Brin carries the Parkinson’s disease gene,[v] which makes him genetically more susceptible to the disease by 20-80%.
- The Parsi community in Mumbai has among the world’s highest incidences of Parkinson’s disease (affecting about 328 out of every 100,000 people[vi]).
- Men are 50% more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women.
- Japan is the only country in the world where women are considerably more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than men.[vii]
- Ayurveda medication was being used in India 4500[viii] years ago to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (L-dopa and Mucuna Pruriens).
- The risk of Parkinson’s disease is reduced by cigarette smoking[ix] – though it is definitely not recommended!
- Red haired people have about double the risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease.[x]
- Some famous people with Parkinson’s disease include:
o Yasser Arafat – Palestinian politician
o Mao Zedong – Chinese Dictator
o Muhammad Ali – American boxer and former world heavyweight champion
o Salvador Dalí – Spanish artist
o Deng Xiaoping – Chinese politician
o Adolf Hitler – German dictator
o Pope John Paul II – Pope of the Roman Catholic Church
o Michael J Fox – Hollywood actor
How can Parkinson’s disease be prevented?
Since the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease in not known, proven ways to prevent it are also not known.
However, research has shown that the 3 things[xi] that may help reduce the chances of developing Parkinson’s disease are:
- Caffeine – found in coffee, tea, chocolate and some energy drinks
- Green Tea
- Regular Aerobic Exercise
Drinking Coffee May Reduce Chances of Developing Parkinson’s Disease – by 5 Times
According to the Journal of American Medical Association, a 30-year experiment in Honolulu found that “men who did not drink any coffee were five times more likely to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s disease than men who drank more than 28 ounces of coffee each day.
“Consumption of caffeine from other sources such as green tea, black tea, chocolate and soda was also associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.[xii]”
[iii] Center for Rehabilitation and Education through Distance Mode (CREDM), an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt. of India
[xi] Mayo Clinic