More than the Shakes: Do You Know What Parkinson’s Disease Is?

Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly from Back to the Future,) has Parkinson’s Disease and is an advocate for high-impact research programs, founding The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

When someone says the word Parkinson’s Disease, the image of Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly from Back to the Future or Alex. P. Keaton from Family Ties) may pop into your head.

Committing himself to help increase awareness and research for a cure, Fox went public with his struggle with Parkinson’s disease in 1998. He was diagnosed with young onset at the age of 29 in 1991. The average age onset is 60, but people have been diagnosed as young as 18.

The most common symptom of the disease is tremors, which are often persistent.

More than one million people in the U.S. and 6 million worldwide have Parkinson’s disease. In New Jersey, there are about 22,000 people with the disease. There are five stages to the disease from the mildest symptoms to the most advanced and debilitating.

Stage three, about midway through the course of the disease is when the symptoms impair activities of daily living such as dressing and eating. By stage four, the person needs help with all activities of daily living and cannot live independently. At stage 5, they may be bedridden and require around-the-clock care.

The combined direct and indirect cost of Parkinson’s, including treatment, social security payments and lost income, is estimated to be nearly $52 billion per year in the United States alone.

Medications alone cost an average of $2,500 a year and therapeutic surgery can cost up to $100,000 per person.

What exactly is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s is a chronic and progressive brain disorder of the central nervous system. The motor symptoms – tremor, slowness, stiffness, along with balance and walking issues – result from the death of cells that make dopamine. In short, dopamine is the chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination.

Parkinson’s patients see a movement disorder specialist (MDS), a neurologist with additional training in Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

Men are more likely to be affected by the disease than women.

Every nine minutes there is a new diagnosis, which means that in April alone nearly 5,000 people in this country will learn that they have Parkinson’s disease.

What causes it?

While the exact cause of the disease is not known, it is attributed to both genetic and environmental factors such as family history, genetic mutations, drinking well water, and exposure to pesticides or metals.

Scientists have discovered that about 30% of Parkinson’s risk is tied to genetics, suggesting the work researching the disease is nowhere near complete because not everyone who has the genetic mutations will get Parkinson’s. The minority of people with the disease (about 10%) develop it directly from a genetic mutation.

Aging also plays a role in Parkinson’s. Scientists predict that the number of people with the disease will double by 2040 since cells become more susceptible to damage as they age.

Parkinson’s is a lifelong, progressive disease – meaning that symptoms will slowly worsen over time. In addition to the changes in motor skills, a person with the disease can also experience depression, constipation, sleep issues, pain, and cognitive dysfunction. All this can make activities of daily living challenging.

While there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, prescribed medications, surgery, along with healthy lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise can alleviate some of the symptoms. Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, may provide relief from symptoms as well. By taking an active role, those with Parkinson’s can live a full and active life for many years.

The Parkinson’s Foundation Helpline at 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636) can help you find your nearest Parkinson’s specialist and resources.

April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, and the already active Parkinson’s community gets into high gear to raise awareness of this disease that touches the lives of so many.



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