Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Degenerative means that it continues to get worse from the onset. Sadly, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, yet there are a variety of treatments to help the sufferer manage the symptoms. Parkinson’s is commonly seen in older people; although it can be found in younger people at times. A common side effect of aging is a reduction in the number of neurons in our brains and bodies. Senior citizens who suffer from Parkinson’s disease begin to lose an abnormally high number of nerve cells, which can result in the loss of function
Exposure to certain pesticides and other chemicals can result in Parkinson’s disease; Agent Orange has been thought to cause several. However, most cases of Parkinson’s are due to the loss of cells in the brain that would normally produce healthy amounts of the hormone dopamine. The dopamine producing cells are smothered by the accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein. The protein forms clumps that stop the healthy cells growth. The clumps stop the cells from producing dopamine, and ultimately the cells die. A lack of dopamine is a major contributor to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
The early symptoms of Parkinson’s are not as severe as late stage symptoms. Here is a list of early onset Parkinson’s disease symptoms:
- Some forgetfulness
- Possible tremors in one leg or arm while resting
- Slurred speech or difficulty speaking
- Difficulty and pain with movement
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in mood like when a normally very compassionate person suddenly seems callous
- Odd behavior such as suddenly becoming a gambler or overeating when it has never before been a problem
- Bradykinesia, a slowness of movement that interferes with simple tasks like signing your name.
- Loss of some cognitive skills
- Rigidity, a stiffness that affects the neck and shoulders unevenly
As the disease progresses, the symptoms will become more severe. Symptoms that can occur in late stage Parkinson’s include:
- Tremors – Shaking of the limbs while at rest, advancing down the arm or leg to the feet or fingers (this is the most common symptom or tell tale sign of Parkinson’s)
- Pill-rolling – The index finger and thumb rub together as if rolling something in between them
- Full body stiffness
- Inability to keep balanced while standing resulting in falls and broken bones
- Speech problems – The tone of voice can change because of stiffness in the voicebox. Speech that is understandable can be diminished or reduced because of the stiffening of the mouth muscles.
- Swallowing – Dysphagia (the inability to swallow) can occur
- Loss of the ability to care for oneself creating the need for a caregiver
- Loss of depth perception
- Lack of facial recognition, may not even recognize family members or close friends
Doctors normally diagnose Parkinson’s by the symptoms experienced. A clinical test can then be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Neuroimaging can detect the clumping of protein in and around the nerves.
Drugs are available to stimulate the brain’s use of dopamine. Some drugs have the ability to mimic the effects of dopamine on the brain and can help manage the early onset symptoms. However Parkinson’s is an incurable disease and any drugs used to manage symptoms ultimately become ineffective.