Parkinson’s disease is the second most common age-related neuro-degenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease. An estimated seven million to 10 million people worldwide have Parkinson’s disease, which affects how we move and speak.
W&h chatted to Professor David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research and Development at Parkinson’s UK, to find out everything you need to know about Parkinson’s disease…
What causes Parkinson’s disease?
Our brain communicates with our bodies via chemical messengers; one of these is called dopamine. But in people with Parkinson’s disease, the cells that produce dopamine start to die off and aren’t replaced.
Once around 60% of those cells are extinct, symptoms start to occur. For instance, those with very low levels of dopamine struggle to control their movements or get things done.
What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
The most common are tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement – lack of dopamine means the brain can’t tell the muscles what to do. Plus, other cells that use other chemical messengers die in the brain, causing depression, anxiety and memory loss.
Some people with Parkinson’s disease might also experience;
- Writing changes – writing style might change and appear smaller, larger or messier
- Speech changes – the pitch and tone of the voice might change, and some people hesitate before speaking to slur their words
- Changes in posture and balance – there’s a greater risk of falling as Parkinson’s disease affects a person’s balance.
Who’s at risk for Parkinson’s disease?
There are gene mutations that predispose people to getting rare forms of Parkinson’s disease, but the vast majority of cases happen sporadically. Some studies have also found a small link between certain environmental factors and toxins and Parkinson’s disease.
Can oestrogen help?
The ratio of male-to-female sufferers can be as high as 4:1. It’s thought oestrogen could have a protective effect against Parkinson’s disease as the chance of women getting it increases after menopause.
What are the early signs of Parkinson’s disease?
It’s often diagnosed after a GP visit for something like a shoulder stiffness that feels like a sprain. Handwriting that starts to get smaller is also a classic indication.
Another possible early sign is REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD), where sleepers physically move their limbs more. Studies have shown that 70% of those diagnosed with RBD will go on to develop a neurological disorder, usually Parkinson’s disease.
What are the Parkinson’s disease treatment options?
Early diagnosis helps. Before the stage where a patient shows full-blown tremor and rigidity, the drug levodopa can get the brain to create more dopamine.
Treatment aims at replacing lost dopamine – this has been effectively the same for 50 years. There’s an urgent need to develop therapies to stop the loss of brain cells. If experts can find out who’s susceptible to the condition, drugs can be given earlier.
Can diet and exercise help?
It’s important to eat a healthy vitamin-rich diet full of flavonoids, the phytonutrients in colourful fruit and veg. The International Parkinson’s Foundation recommends a minimum of 2.5 hours of exercise a week with activities including both cardiovascular and strength training exercises, combined with flexibility exercises.
Find out more about Parkinson’s at www.parkinson.org or call the Parkinson’s Association of South Africa; 011 083 8483