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A Guide to Parkinson’s Disease

Close-up of an old woman's hands measuring her pulse. By: Camila Cal, SeniorLivingGuide.com

Every six minutes, someone is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Approximately one million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s, with around 90,000 new diagnoses each year. With such large numbers, it’s important to ask: what exactly is Parkinson’s Disease?

Naomi McLeod with the American Parkinson Disease Association Virginia Chapter joined Darleen with the SeniorLivingGuide.com Podcast to discuss Parkinson’s Disease and provide information and tips on how to understand and live with the diagnosis.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

McLeod explained that Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurological disorder that can cause motor and non-motor symptoms. This is because of low levels of dopamine in the part of the brain that controls movement. Typically, people associate Parkinson’s with tremors, shakiness, loss of balance, problems with gait, etc., but it can also cause non-motor symptoms that are just as difficult to contend with such as issues with speech, sleep, anxiety, and depression. The average age of a person diagnosed with Parkinson’s is 60-65 years old. About 10% of people under the age of 50 are diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson’s.

What are the causes of Parkinson’s?

Unfortunately, this is still an ongoing question that needs more research. There are a few correlations and risk factors. Environmental factors like herbicides and pesticides are a risk as there is evidence of higher cases of Parkinson’s in more rural areas. There have also been higher diagnoses among veterans of the Vietnam War, possibly due to their exposure to Agent Orange. People that receive a lot of brain injuries/trauma are at a higher risk, too. Genetics are sometimes a factor, but less than 10% of people diagnosed have a genetic mutation.

What are the symptoms?

Many people aren’t aware that it is possible to have Parkinson’s Disease for a significant amount of time without SeniorLivingGuide.com Podcast Bannerbeing diagnosed. Symptoms can start small and include losing sense of smell, constipation, issues sleeping, and more. Unfortunately, these are symptoms commonly associated with a range of other health issues, so it’s important to keep a look out for those other symptoms commonly associated with Parkinson’s (tremors, shakiness, gait difference, etc.).

However, remember that just because you are experiencing those symptoms, it may not definitively mean you have Parkinson’s! Even though they are associated with Parkinson’s, these symptoms be explained by several other factors, such as a side-effect of medications. The best way to understand your body is to visit your doctor and explain any symptoms you may be experiencing. For those diagnosed with Parkinson’s, McLeod recommends a neurologist with a specialty in movement disorder.

How is it diagnosed?

There is no one specific test to diagnose Parkinson’s. It is diagnosed clinically. Doctors will look at symptoms, family history, and any other pertinent information. There are other tests such as a DaTscan (which checks levels of dopamine in the brain) and skin biopsies (which study proteins in the skin) that can assist but not diagnose. Many doctors will recommend medications and monitor how your body may respond. Because of technology and increasing knowledge about Parkinson’s, medical advances occur very often.

What are the treatments? 

Many kinds of medications exist for Parkinson’s with the goal of mimicking or replenishing dopamine. Doctors may prescribe medications for those motor and non-motor symptoms. Sometimes these include low dose anxiety or depression medications.

General wellness and maintenance are highly important, and many people diagnosed with Parkinson’s work with speech, physical, and occupational therapists. Incorporating exercise into daily life is highly recommended to avoid becoming sedentary and to keep your body moving.

McLeod encourages breaking a sweat and elevating your heartrate. Focus on strength, flexibility, and aerobic exercises. If you don’t know where to start, it’s as easy as searching for Parkinson’s Disease exercises on YouTube or Google. There are a variety of exercises from dancing, to boxing, to sitting Zumba, all of which are accessible and free!

Nutrition is also important. Make sure you are eating clean, healthy foods. McLeod mentioned that research has shown that the Mediterranean diet has been the beneficial for those with Parkinson’s due to its concentration on leafy greens and legumes. The less sweets and fats, the better! Constipation is a symptom and side-effect so focus on fluids and exercise to stimulate the bowels.

Are there any resources for those diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

Consider joining a support group! They provide education, emotional release, or just opportunities to socialize. It may be helpful to speak with others that are in a similar situation and understand the difficulties of Parkinson’s. Sometimes, members of the support group have tips and tricks that those new to the diagnosis might not know. Not only will you get advice, but you will also recognize that you are not alone and are part of a larger community!

American Parkinson Disease Association has several resources for support groups. Many states have their own chapters where you will find programs with support groups and events. APDA also offer programs that encourage socialization such as art therapy because they understand that chronic illness is often isolating. Scholarships that can be used for transportation, medication, etc., are also available.

Is there anything else I should know? 

Remember that Parkinson’s Disease varies from person to person. No case is the same so avoid comparing yourself to others. Everyone moves at a different pace!

Most importantly, remember that life does not end with the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. There is no question that chronic illness is difficult, but armed with information about your diagnosis, a good support system, and a positive attitude, you can most definitely still have a meaningful, happy life while living with Parkinson’s.

For more senior and caregiver resource podcasts, visit SeniorLivingGuide.com Podcast or they can be found most anywhere you enjoy music or podcasts such as Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podchaser, and more!


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