April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. How much do you know about Parkinson’s disease? Find out with this myth-busting guide.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. It is named after the English surgeon, James Parkinson, who first described symptoms of the disease in 1817.
Many symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are due to a reduction in dopamine – a chemical messenger in the brain that coordinates movement. This occurs when brain cells that make dopamine gradually break down or die.
Men are 50% more likely than women to develop Parkinson’s disease.
Tremors in the fingers and hands are a common and recognisable feature of the disease. However, around 10-15% of people with Parkinson’s do not have tremors. As symptoms develop gradually, tremors may not be noticeable in early stages of the disease.
Parkinson’s disease is more common in older people. The average age of diagnosis is 60 years. However, about 4% of cases occur in younger adults, below the age of 50.
Currently, there is no one specific test available to diagnose Parkinson's disease.
It is usually necessary to assess signs and symptoms over time before reaching a definitive diagnosis
Imaging tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound of the brain, and PET scans, can help rule out other disorders but are not particularly helpful for diagnosing Parkinson's disease.
A dopamine transporter scan (DaTscan) using CT imaging, may be able to provide beneficial insights to help a doctor confirm a suspected Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Parkinson’s disease is progressive but not fatal. Although there is currently no known cure, most patients with Parkinson’s, if provided early and appropriate neurological care, can lead near-normal lives with a near-normal lifespan and manageable symptoms.
The physical symptoms of Parkinson’s such as tremors, difficulty walking, and speech changes may be the easiest to see. But less visible symptoms such as smell dysfunction, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, cognitive decline and dementia are also common and require proper attention and treatment.
Medications which increase or substitute for dopamine, such as Levodopa, can significantly improve symptoms. However, Parkinson’s drugs may cause side effects and their effects may diminish or become less consistent over time.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves a surgical procedure to implant electrodes that send electrical pulses to the brain which control body movements, may be recommended for people with advanced Parkinson's disease who have unstable medication responses. DBS can be very effective in stabilising medication fluctuations or reducing tremors.
Other therapies, such as physical therapy and speech therapy can also be helpful.
Exercise and physical activity are recommended for people with Parkinson’s. Research by the Parkinson’s Outcomes Project has found that increasing physical activity to at least 2.5 hours a week can slow the decline associated with the disease and improve the quality of life for individuals.
Research is ongoing into Parkinson's disease, and in most cases the cause is not known.
Microscopic changes in the brains of people with Parkinson's disease have been identified, including the presence of Lewy bodies - clumps of specific substances, including a protein called alpha-synuclein (a-synuclein) - within brain cells, although it is not clear why these changes occur:
Genetic factors are thought to play a role in around 15 to 20% of cases. It is thought that exposure to certain toxins or environmental factors may increase the risk of later Parkinson's disease, but more research is needed.