What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease (PD) occurs when nerve cells in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine become damaged or die. Dopamine is crucial for coordinated muscle and movement control. A person must lose an estimated 60% (or more) of dopamine-producing cells before noticeable changes can be detected.
Over time, the decline in dopamine levels begins to cause difficulties with movement, including tremor, slowness of movement, stiffness, and changes in walking and balance. While no two people experience Parkinson’s in the same way, for most, disease advancement is gradual, and lifespan is normal.
Approximately one million Americans currently have Parkinson’s disease, making it the second most frequent degenerative brain disorder in the United States, after Alzheimer’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease occurs most often during adulthood and affects both men and women. The most significant risk for developing PD is increasing age, with 90-95% of cases are patients older than 50.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for PD. Neurologists review your medical history and perform thorough neurological examinations to make the diagnosis. The clinical symptoms of PD are unique and often detectable via a neurologic exam. Some things your physician may evaluate include:
- Open and closing of hands
- Tapping fingers
- Walking and balance
- Stiffness when moving limbs
- Presence of tremor
- Use of voice
In some instances, response to certain medications can help your physician diagnose Parkinson’s disease.
While Parkinson’s disease cannot be seen on a traditional brain scan, occasionally more sophisticated imaging is recommended. DaTscan (Ioflupane 123I injection) is a specialized radioactive tracer that is injected into the blood. The tracer then attaches itself to the dopamine neurons. People with PD will typically have reduced uptake of the tracer because they have fewer dopamine neurons. While this is usually not necessary, it can be helpful when your physician is not confident in the diagnosis.
For more information about the diagnosis, please contact your physician.
Causes and Prevention
Currently, the exact causes of Parkinson’s disease are still unknown. Many research studies are focused on finding the cause of Parkinson’s disease to develop ways to delay symptoms or find a cure.
In some patients; genetics, environmental risk factors, and lifestyle choices may play a role in triggering PD. Most scientists believe the interaction of all three factors determines if someone will develop PD. Genetic mutations alone cause about 10 to 15 % of all Parkinson’ss cases, and scientists have discovered dozens of gene mutations linked to PD.
Environmental risk factors include:
- Pesticide exposure
- Head trauma
- Location of residence
Factors that may help reduce the risk of developing the disease include:
- Exercise and lifestyle
- Maintaining mobility and flexibility
- Gender: PD is less common in women than in men
- Age: the largest risk factor is aging
- Caffeine: people who drink 2 cups of caffeine during the day seem at lower risk
- Medications: some studies have suggested that the use of statins (drugs used to lower cholesterol levels) and anti-inflammatories are associated with reduced risk of PD
The disease is usually treated with medications that increase dopamine levels in the brain. While these medications are quite effective, no medication has been shown to slow or reverse PD progression.