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Understanding Parkinson’s Disease

understanding parkinsons disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brain disorder caused by the gradual death of dopamine-producing neurons in the substantia nigra region of the brain, which helps control movement.

When nerve cells die in this part of the brain, the major brain centers that control movement cannot work either. This affects muscle control, movement, balance, and coordination.
Damage to the substantia nigra causes a rest tremor, rigidity, and uncontrollable movements, all of which are symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD).
Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are typically subtle, develop gradually, and worsen over time. For example, a person with early Parkinson’s disease may feel slight tremors or notice that their handwriting has become much smaller and cramped. They may begin to walk more slowly, or their speech may become soft or slurred.

As the symptoms progress, an affected person may have memory difficulties and problems talking and walking. Depression, sleep difficulties, and behavioral changes may also be present.
There are three main types of Parkinson’s disease:

  • Idiopathic
  • Early-onset
  • Familial

Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease

A disease with no known cause, idiopathic PD is the most common type of Parkinson’s that affects aging people (the average age of onset is around 60).

The main symptoms of idiopathic PD include movement issues such as tremors, stiffness (rigidity), poor balance, and slowness of movement.
Also, idiopathic PD involves non-motor signs such as mood disorders, fatigue, sleep problems, dementia, loss of smell, and psychosis with hallucinations.

Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease

Early-onset Parkinson’s disease has symptoms similar to idiopathic Parkinson’s, but it can affect people aged 21 to 50. In addition, symptoms tend to progress more slowly.

Familial Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is inherited in 10 to 15% of cases. Gene mutations that are passed down from parents to children are thought to be the cause of familial Parkinson’s disease. This makes the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease higher.
According to research, several gene mutations have been linked to Parkinson’s disease. However, the likelihood of developing the disease is low even if a person has a gene mutation linked to Parkinson’s.

Is Parkinson’s Disease Fatal?

Parkinson’s disease is irreversible, which means that it may be treated but never cured completely. However, PD is not fatal on its own.
According to research, people with Parkinson’s disease can expect to live nearly as long as people who do not have the disease. However, some complications associated with this condition may reduce life expectancy slightly. According to the American Parkinson Disease Association, falls and pneumonia is among the risk factors associated with Parkinson’s that can lead to death.

Can Parkinson’s Disease Be Cured?

Parkinson’s disease cannot be cured or eliminated entirely. But there are several medicines and treatments that can help control the symptoms and make the condition better.

Deep brain stimulation may be used to alleviate symptoms. This procedure uses electrical impulses to control tremors and twitching movements in the brain.
In addition, some people with Parkinson’s disease may require surgery to regulate certain brain regions and manage their Parkinson’s symptoms.

What is the Average Lifespan of Someone with Parkinson’s?

Studies show that most people with Parkinson’s disease have an average life expectancy. So, if you or your loved one has Parkinson’s, you may expect to live as long as, or almost as long as, people without the disease.
Modern treatments and medications that help manage symptoms and reduce their severity also aid in the prevention of potentially fatal Parkinson’s complications.

Nonetheless, one study proposed that a person’s life expectancy may be affected by their type of Parkinson’s disease. In particular, people with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease seem to have a mostly normal life expectancy.
In addition, the age of onset can affect the lifespan of someone with Parkinson’s. For example, one study showed that Parkinson’s could reduce life expectancy if the person is diagnosed before 70.

How Fast Does Parkinson’s Progress?

Because of the variety of symptoms, it is often difficult to predict the progression of Parkinson’s disease. In addition, a person with Parkinson’s disease may not experience all of the symptoms, especially in the early stages.
Also, they may not be able to tell how quickly their symptoms will get worse or if the medicines and treatments they are getting will slow the progression of their illness.

Nonetheless, the progression of Parkinson’s disease follows a predictable pattern. During the five stages of Parkinson’s disease, changes in movement, cognition, mood, and behavior tend to happen slowly and worsen.

  • Stage 1: The symptoms are mild and don’t interfere with the person’s everyday life. However, tremors and other body movement issues are generally limited to one side of the body at this stage of Parkinson’s.
  • Stage 2: The symptoms are much more noticeable and affect both sides of the person’s body. Difficulties with walking may develop, as well as changes in facial expression and speech problems.
  • Stage 3: The symptoms from the previous stage are typically accompanied by loss of balance, reduced reflexes, and slower movements, significantly affecting the person’s daily life.
  • Stage 4: At this stage, many people cannot move independently and require round-the-clock assistance with activities of daily living.
  • Stage 5: people in this stage often cannot stand and walk, requiring wheelchairs and 24-hour assistance. Dementia, hallucinations, and delusions may also occur at this stage.

At What Stage of Parkinson’s Does Dementia Start?

Research shows that up to 80%of people with Parkinson’s eventually develop dementia. Most people develop dementia at stage five within ten years of the onset of movement problems.

What is the Most Common Cause of Death in Parkinson’s Patients?

Although having Parkinson’s disease does not necessarily imply a shorter life span, some complications related to the illness can be fatal.

For example, a person can die from injuries caused by a fall, trouble swallowing, or problems caused by dementia.

The Risk of Falls

The risk of falling increases dramatically in Parkinson’s disease stage 3 due to loss of balance and potentially decreased reflexes. In addition, serious falls can cause blood clots from immobility, infections, heart failure, and other risks.

Difficulty Swallowing

Because some Parkinson’s patients have difficulty swallowing, foods can be inhaled into the lungs. Unfortunately, this can result in fatal aspiration pneumonia as the person with Parkinson’s may not be able to cough out the food they inhaled.

What Do Parkinson’s Patients Struggle With?

Although Parkinson’s disease does not affect how long a person lives, it significantly impacts their quality of life. Here are the most common difficulties Parkinson’s patients struggle with.

A tremor is one of the distinctive symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It occurs due to movement problems caused by lower dopamine levels in the brain.

When the person is at rest, their hands may tremble slightly more than when performing tasks. A tremor may involve rubbing the thumb and forefinger back and forth (pill-rolling tremor).

Movement Difficulties

Over time, the disease can cause slowed movement or bradykinesia, making simple daily tasks such as getting out of the chair and walking challenging.

Muscle stiffness may also develop, limiting the person’s range of motion. Impaired balance and posture and loss of automatic movement may impair a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks and unconscious movements (like swinging arms while walking).
Changes in Writing and Speech

Parkinson’s patients may find it challenging to write as their symptoms progress. Also, their writing may appear smaller and crumpled. In addition, they may begin to speak softly or hesitate before talking.
Dementia and Thinking Problems

In the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, dementia and trouble thinking can happen, so the person may need help with everyday tasks around the clock.

Chewing & Swallowing Difficulties

Patients in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease may have difficulty chewing due to muscle failure in the mouth. They may also develop problems with swallowing.
Smell Dysfunction

Some Parkinson’s patients may have issues with their sense of smell.

Emotional Changes and Mood Disorders

Some people with Parkinson’s may experience anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. For example, the person may become easily irritable and discouraged. In addition, they may experience energy loss, apathy, fatigue, or suicidal thoughts.

What Should Parkinson’s Patients Avoid?

According to research, exercise and diet can affect the onset of the disease and quality of life in Parkinson’s patients. So, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle and making dietary changes may help control the symptoms.

Parkinson’s patients should avoid processed foods, foods that are hard to chew and swallow, and certain dairy products.

What Is It Like for a Person Living with Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s disease undoubtedly makes daily life more difficult. Patients with Parkinson’s disease have a variety of movement symptoms that significantly impair their ability to go about their daily lives. 

Also, symptoms that aren’t related to movements, like depression, memory loss, and trouble sleeping, can profoundly affect their quality of life and well-being.

However, medications and Parkinson’s treatments can help alleviate the symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s.

What are the Signs that Parkinson’s is Getting Worse?

Most Parkinson’s symptoms get worse over time. Some of the signs that the disease is progressing include:

  • Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression
  • Confusion
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Involuntary movements
  • Memory and thinking problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Incompressible speech
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to perform ADLs without assistance
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