Of the 1 million Americans who live with Parkinson’s disease, actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammad Ali are probably the best-known. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a condition that primarily disrupts motor control (movement), but can also cause difficulty with speech, automatic gestures, balance and mental acuity. PD is chronic and progressive, and though there are medical treatments, there is no cure at present. Medical treatment and lifestyle changes can help people with PD manage their symptoms and increase quality of life.
With proper diagnosis and modern medical treatment, Parkinson’s patients can expect to live a normal lifespan. Though Parkinson’s alone is not fatal, it can cause or contribute to other conditions which may shorten a person’s lifespan. A patient who has struggled with Parkinson’s for many years may suffer mental and physical disabilities that make it more difficult to benefit from life-prolonging treatments.
The first sign of Parkinson’s disease is usually a tremor on one side of the body, often a behavior known as “pill-rolling” where the thumb and forefinger rub together. This tremor may be mild to severe and almost always extends to the other side of the body. Parkinson’s patients also have difficulty in initiating movement. Their feet may stay glued to the floor when attempting to walk, and they may lose undirected movements like gesturing while talking, blinking, or swinging the arms while walking. In the later stages, some patients may experience a loss of equilibrium and 10 percent to 15 percent may develop dementia. Parkinson’s can also affect the ability to speak clearly, causing people to murmur, pause before saying a word or repeat words. None of these symptoms shorten lifespan in themselves, though those that experience dementia are often at greater risk for poor health and a lower quality of life.
The causes of Parkinson’s disease are not fully understood. Some researchers theorize that genetic factors, perhaps a mutated gene or environmental toxins may be at fault. However, the medical community does agree on what causes Parkinson’s symptoms—the inability to produce or utilize dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in your brain that tells your muscles to move. If your dopamine production or reception is faulty, you will have difficulty initiating movement, as well as controlling some movements. What exactly is creating dopamine decrease or its inadequate use in people with PD is not certain. As with other neurological disorders (like Cerebral Palsy) that affect voluntary movement, Parkinson’s does not in itself limit lifespan unless other conditions are present.
Gender, heredity, age and exposure to environmental toxins all play a role in your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Men are more likely than women to develop PD. This disease usually emerges in middle age and increases in likelihood as you age, but it does affect young adults as well. Having a PD patient in your family medical history increases your chances to some degree, as does being frequently exposed to chemical toxins. Overall, your chance of developing Parkinson’s disease is less than 5 percent.
Though medical treatment cannot cure Parkinson’s disease or extend lifespan to any great degree, it can manage symptoms and increase quality of life. Pharmaceutical approaches that increase the presence of dopamine in the brain and decrease or inhibit the usage of dopamine can help stabilize motor control and reduce or even eradicate tremors and other involuntary movement. These medications must be monitored closely since an oversupply of dopamine has negative effects on motor control. Lifestyle changes, such as physical exercise and healthy eating, can keep muscles working to their best ability.