Parkinson’s Disease: Risk Groups and Symptoms

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder and it is the most common movement disorder. It leads to the gradual deterioration of motor function due to the damaging of dopamine producing brain cells in a region called the substantia nigra. As these brain cell changes progress, the patient may experience difficulties with mental functions, paying attention, making sound judgments and planning ahead to complete a task, however the most well known sign of Parkinson’s is a tremor in one hand.

The average time of diagnosing Parkinson’s to developing dementia is about 10 years. The critical brain changes that correlate to Parkinson’s disease dementia are the build up of abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein. This protein is present in numerous areas of the brain and its function is still not yet known. These deposits are called Lewy bodies and the same abnormality in the processing of alpha-synuclein is also responsible for another type of dementia called dementia with Lewy bodies(DLB).

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurological disorder in older adults and tends to affect 2% of individuals older than 65 and about 10 million people currently have the disease worldwide. Of this only 4% diagnosed are under the age of 50. It is important to note that about 50 to 80% of individuals with Parkinson’s disease eventually experience dementia.

What Are the Risk Factors for Parkinson’s Disease?

The exact cause of Parkinson’s is unknown but these are some of the factors that may play a role:

  • Age – Your risk of developing Parkinson’s generally increases with age. With majority being diagnosed over the age of 50.
  • Genetics – Generally speaking the larger the number of close relatives you have with Parkinson’s the greater your risk of developing it although it is not significant unless it is numerous relatives.
  • Sex – Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s.
  • Exposure to Toxins – You may have a slightly increased risk if you have constant exposure to herbicides and pesticides.
  • Head Injury – Traumatic brain injuries that result in a alteration of the level of conscious has been linked to an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s later down the line.

What are The Signs and Symptoms Of Parkinson’s?

The signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s may differ significantly from person to person. The early signs are usually subtle and tend to go unnoticed. The symptoms usually present themselves on one side of the body and will remain worse on that side even as symptoms progress to both.

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The signs and symptoms include:

  • Tremors – trembling in the extremities usually while resting
  • Bradykinesia (Slowed movement)
  • Writing Changes – It may become difficult to write and your handwriting may appear smaller than it was before.
  • Postural Instability – May become difficult to maintain posture or keep balance.
  • Parkinsonian Gait – Patients may develop a distinctive shuffling walk with an absent arm swing and stooped posture.

Some secondary non movement symptoms include:

  • Speech Changes
  • Mood Changes – anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Confusion or Memory loss
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Increased sweating
  • Loss of sense of smell or taste
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Sleep disorders

Diagnosis of Parkinson’s

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Similar to dementia, there is currently no single, or combination of tests to determine if an individual has Parkinson’s or not. However, there are various symptoms and diagnostic tests used in conjunction with one another to produce an accurate diagnosis of Parkinson’s.

Diagnosing Parkinson’s is made all the more difficult by the fact that at its early stages, the movement symptoms are very similar to other related movement disorders, but a skilled practitioner, such as a neurologist specializing in movement disorders, should be able to make an accurate diagnosis. It is important to remember that 2 of the following main symptoms must be present for a long period of time for it to be considered Parkinson’s:

  1. Shaking or tremors
  2. Stiffness or rigidity of the arms legs or trunk
  3. Bradykinesia
  4. Balance and posture impairment

There have been some guidelines published in recent years to help with diagnosing Parkinson’s. These include Hoehn and Yahr scale and the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale. Tests are also available to measure motor function, behavior, mental capacity, mood and daily living activities. Some other tests are also performed to rule out diseases with symptoms similar to that of Parkinson’s.

Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease

As with most forms of dementia, there is currently no medication that slows, stops or cures Parkinson’s. Almost all medications concentrate on treating the symptoms of Parkinson’s but none actually reverse the effects. Some of these drugs are listed below:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors – Used for treating thinking changes.
  • L-Dopa – Used to treat movement symptoms, but may result in hallucinations or confusion.
  • Antidepressants
  • Clonazepam – Used to treat REM sleep disorder.

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