Did you know that more than 10 million people around the world are living with Parkinson’s Disease? The prevalence of the disease is lower in Sub-Saharan Africa than in more industrialised populations. However, statistics show that the incidence of the disease is on the rise in Africa as life expectancy increases across the continent. Only a small percentage of people (4 per cent of all cases) are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease before the age of 50.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is the second most common neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s disease. The disease is named after a British doctor James Parkinson, who first described it in “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy” in 1817. In his essay, Dr Parkinson described a chronic, slowly progressive disease of the nervous system characterised by a combination of tremor, rigidity, and stooped posture.
When someone has PD, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain gradually break down or die. Many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are due to a loss of neurons that produce a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. Low dopamine levels cause abnormal brain activity, leading to impaired movement and other symptoms.
Who can get PD?
For unknown reasons, men are 1.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women. Some researchers have theorised the difference in Parkinson’s incidence in the genders is due to the protective nature of oestrogen in women, a higher rate of minor head trauma and exposure to occupational toxins in men, and genetic susceptibility genes on the sex chromosomes.
The disease might have a genetic element – people with a close family member with Parkinson’s have a small increased risk (2 to 5 per cent) of developing the disease. Approximately 15 to 25 per cent of people with Parkinson’s disease have a known relative with the disease.
The life expectancy of people with Parkinson’s disease is similar to that of the general population. However, dementia in people with PD seems to lower life expectancy. About 50 to 80 per cent of people with Parkinson’s disease develop dementia. If the disease is detected early, there are some measures that can be taken to prevent symptom progression and increase life expectancy.
Parkinson’s Disease symptoms
The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease develop slowly over many years. However, a few patients (especially those that develop the disease in younger years), may have more rapid symptom development. Early proper treatment helps reduce the symptoms of PD in many patients.
In the early stages, Parkinson’s disease patients tend to develop three key symptoms:
· A tremor - this is usually on one side of the body (hand, foot, arm or other body parts when the individual is at rest.
· Body rigidity – this refers to resistance to movement when one tries to move their joints.
· Bradykinesia – this refers to slowness and small movements. and decreased facial expression.
With that in mind, here is a closer look at the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease:
Tremors are one of the most recognisable symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. As mentioned, tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease usually happen when the person is at rest.
The tremor can be a slight shake in your finger, thumb, hand, chin, lip, or lips when your body is at rest and your muscles are relaxed. These tremors might become more noticeable when one is excited or stressed.
If you notice your handwriting going from big and loopy to small and cramped, you might be experiencing an early symptom of PD.
This is usually caused by bradykinesia, which refers to slowness and small movements. The small handwriting phenomenon is known as micrographia.
People suffering from this symptom notice they have slower movements and trouble with repetitive tasks such as handwriting.
Decreased sense of smell
Is your favourite perfume is losing its magical scent? If you realise that you can no longer pick up your favourite scents or the nasty ones, something might be wrong.
Reduced sense of smell is usually one of the earliest symptoms of PD, although most people only realise that after developing other symptoms.
The link between this symptom and Parkinson’s disease is unclear. However, one theory is that the clumping of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain affects the sense of smell. This type of clumping has been found in all Parkinson’s disease patients.
Loss of expression
Because PD causes rigidity and slowness in the muscles, it often causes patients to have trouble changing their facial expressions.
Parkinson’s patients might look like they always have a sombre expression, a condition often referred to as a “masked face.”
They might also have a softer, lower voice.
Parkinson’s disease might be the reason one is tossing and turning in bed all night.
Although the exact reason isn’t known, one theory is that the degeneration of specific regions of the brain stem can cause disordered sleeping.
Stiffness in the joints and muscle slowness is one of the key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. You might notice difficulty in performing everyday tasks such as brushing your teeth, cutting up food, or buttoning up shirts.
You might have difficulty in going from a sitting to a standing position. You might also realise that your feet feel stiff (as if they’re stuck on the floor) and that you can’t swing your arms as you walk. People might comment that you look stiff.
On its own, constipation is nothing to worry too much about.
But if you have other symptoms listed as well, your constipation might be another indicator of Parkinson’s disease.
This is because the disease alters the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls processes like digestion and bowel function.
It is not uncommon for Parkinson’s patients to exhibit symptoms of depression. Some patients might develop depression because of their Parkinson’s symptoms, while others might have depression years before they start to exhibit physical symptoms.
Researchers theorise that the depressive symptoms are linked to low dopamine levels and other neurotransmitters in the brain – resulting from damage in brain cells.
Prevention of Parkinson’s Disease
Because the exact causes of Parkinson’s disease are unknown, it is also unclear on how the disease can be prevented. However, some research has shown that regular aerobic exercise, regular consumption of caffeine and green tea might reduce risk of PD.