Parkinson's disease is a movement disorder. It affects the nervous system, and symptoms become worse over time.
Other movement disorders include cerebral palsy, ataxia, and Tourette syndrome. They happen when a change in the nervous system affects a person's ability to move or stay still.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that, in the United States, around 50,000 people receive a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease each year, and around half a million people are living with the condition.
Read on to find out more about this condition, the early signs, and what causes it.
The symptoms of Parkinson's disease develop gradually. They often start with a slight tremor in one hand and a feeling of stiffness in the body.
Over time, other symptoms develop, and some people will have dementia.
Most of the symptoms result from a fall in dopamine levels in the brain.
One study, based in France, found in 2015 that men are 50 percent more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than women overall, but the risk for women appears to increase with age.
In most people, symptoms appear at the age of 60 years or over. However in 5–10 percent of cases they appear earlier. When Parkinson's disease develops before the age of 50 years, this is called "early onset" Parkinson's disease.
Here are some early signs of Parkinson's disease:
- Movement: There may be a tremor in the hands.
- Coordination: A reduced sense of coordination and balance can cause people to drop items they are holding. They may be more likely to fall.
- Gait: The person's posture may change, so that they lean forward slightly, as if they were hurrying. They may also develop a shuffling gait.
- Facial expression: This can become fixed, due to changes in the nerves that control facial muscles.
- Voice: There may be a tremor in the voice, or the person may speak more softly than before.
- Handwriting: This may become more cramped and smaller.
- Sense of smell: A loss of sense of smell can be an early sign.
- Sleep problems: These are a feature of Parkinson's, and they may be an early sign. Restless legs may contribute to this.
Other common symptoms include:
- mood changes, including depression
- difficulty chewing and swallowing
- problems with urination
- skin problems
- sleep problems
REM sleep disorder: Authors of a study published in 2015 describe another neurological condition, REM sleep disorder, as a "powerful predictor" for Parkinson's disease and some other neurological conditions.
The importance of recognizing early symptoms
Many people think that the early signs of Parkinson's are normal signs of aging. For this reason, they may not seek help.
However, treatment is more likely to be effective if a person takes it early in the development of Parkinson's disease. For this reason, it is important to get an early diagnosis if possible.
If treatment does not start until the person has clear symptoms, it will not be as effective.
Moreover, a number of other conditions can have similar symptoms.
- drug-induced Parkinsonism
- head trauma
- Lewy body dementia
- corticobasal degeneration
- multiple system atrophy
- progressive supranuclear palsy
The similarity to other conditions can make it hard for doctors to diagnose Parkinson's disease in the early stages.
Movement symptoms may start on one side of the body and gradually affect both sides.
Scientists are not sure what causes Parkinson's disease. It happens when nerve cells die in the brain.
Low dopamine levels: Scientists have linked low or falling levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, with Parkinson's disease. This happens when cells that produce dopamine die in the brain.
Dopamine plays a role in sending messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. Low dopamine levels can make it harder for people to control their movements.
As dopamine levels fall in a person with Parkinson's disease, their symptoms gradually become more severe.
Low norepinephrine levels: Norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, is important for controlling many automatic body functions, such as the circulation of the blood.
In Parkinson's disease, the nerve endings that produce this neurotransmitter die. This may explain why people with Parkinson's disease experience not only movement problems but also fatigue, constipation, and orthostatic hypotension, when blood pressure changes on standing up, leading to light-headedness.
Lewy bodies: A person with Parkinson's disease may have clumps of protein in their brain known as Lewy bodies. Lewy body dementia is a different condition, but it has links with Parkinson's disease.
Genetic factors: Sometimes, Parkinson's disease appears to run in families, but it is not always hereditary. Researchers are trying to identify specific genetic factors that may lead to Parkinson's disease, but it appears that not one but a number of factors are responsible.
For this reason, they suspect that a combination for genetic and environmental factors may lead to the condition.
Possible environmental factors could include exposure to toxins, such as pesticides, solvents, metals, and other pollutants.
In 2018, researchers investigating health records in Taiwan found that people with autoimmune rheumatic diseases (ARD) had a 1.37-higher chance of also having Parkinson's disease than people without ARD.
It is not possible to prevent Parkinson's disease, but research has shown that some lifelong habits may help to reduce the risk.
Flavonoids: Consuming another type of antioxidant — flavonoids — may lower the risk of developing Parkinson's disease, according to research. Flavonoids are present in berries, apples, some vegetables, tea, and red grapes.
Heating certain oils — such as sunflower oil — to a certain temperature, and then using them again can cause aldehydes to occur in those oils.
Avoiding toxins: Exposure to herbicides, pesticides, and other toxins may increase the risk of neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease. People should take precautions when using these types of product, for example, by using protective clothing.
Parkinson's disease is a lifelong condition that involves neurological changes in the body. These changes can make it harder for a person to function in daily life. However, medications and other types of therapy are available for treating Parkinson's disease and reducing the symptoms.
Current treatment can relieve symptoms, but scientists hope that gene therapy or stem cell therapy will one day be able to do more than this, and restore function that the person has already lost.