Parkinson’s Disease affects up to one million people in the U.S. with 60,000 new cases occurring every year. Though much of the recognition that Parkinson’s has gotten over the past several years has come from celebrities who have gotten early onset PD – before the age of 40, the disease is usually considered an elder’s condition.
With this month being Parkinson’s Awareness Month, here are five facts you should know about Seniors and Parkinson’s disease:
Who gets it – Parkinson’s disease has an average age of onset of 60 and affects men 50 percent more commonly than women. It occurs all over the world and affects about the same percentage of the population everywhere – about 2 percent of those over the age of 60.
We don’t know why but we do know how – The reason that Parkinson’s disease develops is not known but we do know how it works. Parkinson’s disease causes a loss of brain cells in the “substantia nigra” which produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine is normally transported to the “striatum” which is the area of the brain that coordinates movement. As dopamine production is lost, movement becomes more difficult and disorganized. Researchers have found that up to 80 percent of the dopamine production may be lost before symptoms even develop.
Symptoms start small – Parkinson’s disease has hallmark symptoms such as tremor, muscle rigidity, slow movement and impaired balance. These symptoms are quite noticeable in advanced cases but symptoms may begin with a simple slight tremor in one single finger, eventually spreading. Because Parkinson’s is a frightening and debilitating disease, many patients try to hide the first signs.
Parkinson’s doesn’t affect thinking – Though dementia and Parkinson’s may occur in the same patient, most cases of the dementia are not related to Parkinson’s. A person with Parkinson’s disease may appear feeble and may be unable to perform basic activities such as feeding or dressing himself, but his cognitive processes are not affected by the disorder. Even in advanced stages, many patients with Parkinson’s disease maintain normal brain function and should not be treated as if they cannot coordinate thought.
It can be treated but it can’t be cured – There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease once it starts to develop. As nerve cells cannot be regenerated, once the dopamine production is lost, it cannot be restarted. Medications are available and most work by mimicking dopamine in the brain. Unfortunately, these medications may have side effects, most of which do not go away unless the medication is discontinued and some of which may become permanent. Parkinson’s medications may cause dry mouth, constipation, and sweating. They may also cause difficulties with movement such as dizziness and muscle pain, making determination of whether a condition is a symptom of the disease or a side effect of the medication difficult. Medications also cause a number of drug interactions and careful evaluation of the patient’s treatment regimen should be conducted before any changes are made.
Living with Parkinson’s disease is challenging. It can be embarrassing, painful and scary. In addition to caring for the physical symptoms, caregivers should pay special attention to the patient’s mood state as the development of a debilitating disease can lead to depression.