Doctors use the term early onset Parkinson’s to refer to the disease in people who are under 50 years of age.
Early onset Parkinson’s disease can be a worrying diagnosis. In some cases, it can significantly affect the quality of life of the individual and their family. However, Parkinson’s affects people differently, and some only develop mild motor symptoms.
When Parkinson’s presents at a younger age, it is more likely to have a genetic link. It may also progress differently than Parkinson’s in older people. Being aware of the symptoms can help a person get the treatment and support they need at an early stage.
In this article, we explain what early onset Parkinson’s disease is and how it differs from a later diagnosis. We also discuss the symptoms and treatment of Parkinson’s disease and provide tips for those living with this condition.
The National Institute on Aging notes that although symptoms appear after the age of 60 years in most people with Parkinson’s disease, in 5–10% of cases, it occurs before the age of 50 years. Doctors refer to these cases as early onset Parkinson’s disease.
Some people develop juvenile Parkinson’s disease, in which the symptoms start appearing before the age of 20 years.
The American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) notes that 10–20% of people with Parkinson’s disease have the early onset form, meaning that it affects about 6,000–12,000 people in the United States.
Scientists do not know exactly why Parkinson’s disease happens, but they believe that it results from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Head injury and exposure to toxins, such as pesticides, may contribute.
However, some of the symptoms that can develop quite rapidly in older people may not affect younger people for many years.
- memory loss
- problems with balance
For this reason, the treatment and care that a person with early onset Parkinson’s disease needs may be different.
People with early onset Parkinson’s disease also face different lifestyle challenges. While many people continue to work and enjoy family life, they may need to make some adjustments over time.
The main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease result from low dopamine levels in the brain. Some of the symptoms affect movement, but many people have nonmotor symptoms, too.
According to a 2015 research article, the brain changes that lead to Parkinson’s start to occur about 6 years before symptoms appear.
Examples of movement-related symptoms include:
- small, shaking movements known as tremors
- stiffness or rigidity of the arms, legs, or trunk
- slow, stiff movements, known as bradykinesia
- problems with balance and coordination
Other possible symptoms include:
- changes to thinking or memory
- constipation or urinary incontinence
- sleeping problems
- balance problems
Memory loss, confusion, and balance problems are more likely to affect older people with Parkinson’s disease, according to the APDA. However,
Also, when Parkinson’s develops at a younger age:
- Disease progression is likely to be slower.
- The onset of falls is delayed.
- The survival rate is longer.
Currently, no specific test can diagnose Parkinson’s disease. A doctor will consider the person’s symptoms and may carry out tests, such as blood tests and imaging scans, to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation notes that it may take time to get a correct diagnosis, as doctors do not usually expect to see Parkinson’s disease in a younger person. They may suspect that a stiff shoulder, for example, is due to arthritis or a sports injury instead.
Keeping a diary of symptoms may help identify whether they follow a Parkinson’s-like pattern.
As part of the diagnosis, a doctor
Scientists have not yet found a cure for Parkinson’s disease, but medication can help relieve the symptoms and enable a person to live a full and active life.
The standard treatment for Parkinson’s is a drug called levodopa, which doctors usually prescribe in combination with another ingredient called carbidopa.
Some doctors do not recommend drug treatment in the early stages due to the risk of side effects. They may also delay treatment in the hope that it will remain effective for longer once a person starts to receive it. However, scientists have not proven that this is the case.
- MAO-B inhibitors, such as selegiline (Eldepryl)
- dopamine agonists, such as pramipexole (Mirapex)
- deep brain stimulation
In deep brain stimulation, a surgeon implants a small electrical device (similar to a pacemaker) into an area of the brain involved in movement. Adjusting the stimulation levels can
A doctor may also
- exercise, such as gym sessions, walking, or dance therapy
- speech therapy
- occupational therapy to help manage everyday chores and driving assessments
Early onset Parkinson’s disease can have a significant effect on a person’s daily life and long-term plans.
Tips that may help a person manage early onset Parkinson’s disease include:
- learning as much as possible about Parkinson’s disease and explaining to friends and loved ones what it involves
- establishing contact with a team of trusted healthcare professionals, such as a doctor, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist
- seeking counseling if the diagnosis affects the person’s mental health
- asking their employer to discuss a plan that will enable them to work effectively
- contacting local or online support groups to share tips and experiences with others in a similar situation
- identifying caregivers and loved ones who can help out if necessary
- finding out about disability benefits and insurance coverage
- consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to help prevent constipation and boost overall well-being
- staying active, which may help maintain mobility
A person with early onset Parkinson’s will likely be able to continue working, driving, and enjoying a family and social life, although adaptations may be necessary in time.
Those who are planning to have children may wish to consider genetic testing and counseling to establish whether there may be a hereditary risk. It is worth noting, however, that some people with the genetic features of Parkinson’s disease never develop it.
Parkinson’s disease usually progresses more slowly in younger people, and it may be several years before the person needs additional practical help. However, emotional support and encouragement can be beneficial.
Ways of providing this include:
- learning about Parkinson’s disease and how it can affect someone’s daily life
- engaging with the person in activities that help relieve stress, whether it be a chat over coffee or a dance class
- communicating openly with the person about their preferences and long-term plans
- encouraging the person to keep a record of useful information, such as health records, insurance policies, medications, and names and contact details for healthcare professionals
- joining a support group for caregivers
If a person receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease before the age of 50 years, this is called early onset Parkinson’s disease.
The person may have the hallmark symptoms of tremor, rigidity, and slowness of movement, but confusion and balance problems are less likely than with a later diagnosis.
Parkinson’s disease can be challenging, but its impact varies widely among individuals. Some people experience only minor symptoms for many years.
Establishing a network of healthcare professionals and caregivers and joining a support group are ways of managing a diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s disease.