Every 9 minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD).
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement. It can cause shakiness and stiffness that leads to difficulty with balance, coordination, and walking.
Advancing age is the biggest risk factor, and most people with the disease first notice symptoms around 60 years of age. Up to 10% of people with Parkinson’s notice symptoms before the age of 50. This is known as “early-onset” Parkinson’s.
Because the connection between aging and Parkinson’s is well-established, it’s important to be aware of Parkinson’s symptoms and when to start watching out for them in yourself or an older loved one. Read on to learn more about Parkinson’s disease in older adults.
What causes Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease occurs when nerve cells in the area of the brain that controls body movements (substantia nigra) become impaired or die. Neurons (nerve cells) in this area of the brain are responsible for producing dopamine, an important chemical that acts as a messenger between the brain and the nervous system.
When these neurons become damaged or die, the amount of dopamine in the brain is reduced. This means that the part of the brain that helps control movement cannot function as it should, causing movement problems.
Researchers are exploring the underlying causes of Parkinson’s disease but it is believed to be a combination of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors that may be responsible for the condition.
What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, and the loss of neurons is a gradual process. Many people with Parkinson’s do not develop symptoms until nearly 80% of the neurons in the substantia nigra are lost. Some people assume early symptoms of Parkinson’s are a normal part of aging but as the disease progresses, symptoms will get worse over time.
While no two people will experience Parkinson’s disease in the exact same way, there are some common symptoms:
- Impaired balance and coordination
- Stiffness in the arms, legs, and trunk
- Slowness of movement (bradykinesia)
- Tremor (trembling) in arms, hands, head, jaw and/or legs
Parkinson’s affects all body systems and can cause other symptoms, including:
- Bladder and bowel problems
- Difficulty swallowing
- Memory difficulties
- Mood changes
- Sleep disruptions
How is Parkinson’s disease diagnosed?
There is no one specific laboratory test or method to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and may run different diagnostic tests to provide an accurate diagnosis.
In order to get diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a person must have at least 2 of the 4 main symptoms: shaking/tremor, bradykinesia, stiffness in the limbs or trunk, and balance problems.
Because Parkinson’s symptoms overlap with symptoms of many other common conditions, your primary care provider may refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist or movement disorder specialist, for an official diagnosis.
If you suspect you or a loved one have symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They will provide a physical examination, ask about your symptoms, and may order additional tests to provide an accurate diagnosis.
How is Parkinson’s disease treated?
While there is no cure or way to reverse the effects of Parkinson’s disease, there are medications to help manage symptoms. Treatment varies from person to person, depending on the symptoms they are experiencing.
In addition to medications, there are a few ways your healthcare provider may recommend to you to ease symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including:
- Complementary therapies: acupuncture, massage, and yoga
- Deep brain stimulation: a surgery used to send electrical signals to the brain to reduce abnormal movements and provide relief from uncomfortable symptoms
- Physical, occupational and speech therapy: to improve balance, improve fine motor skills, and address any speech and language difficulties
Can you prevent Parkinson’s disease?
There is no proven way to prevent Parkinson’s disease, but certain lifestyle habits may help reduce the risk or delay the onset of symptoms.
Regular exercise. Some research suggests that regular exercise, especially moderate to virgorous aerobic exercise, may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Eat a brain-healthy diet. A diet rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil and whole grains is associated with a decreased risk of Parkinson’s. Limiting dairy, which is associated with an increased risk of the disease, may also help reduce the risk or delay the onset of symptoms.
Vitamin D. Research shows that approximately 70% of Parkinson’s patients have low levels of vitamin D. Taking dietary supplements or eating foods rich in this vitamin may help protect against the disease.
Caffeine. Drinking caffeinated beverages may help reduce the risk of developing PD. Caffeine has neuroprotective properties, meaning it protects the brain from damage. If you’re not a big fan of coffee or soda, green tea may also help reduce the risk of developing the disease.