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The Mystery of Parkinson's Disease

In the year 175AD, the Greek physician and surgeon Galen described the “shaking palsy.” The first detailed description of this disease appeared in 1817, written by the London physician James Parkinson. Today about one million Americans have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “Although brain cells are particularly susceptible to the accumulated effects of ageing, neuronal death is not programmed to occur at a particular time. Cellular and molecular changes of ageing interact with genes and environmental factors to determine which cells age successfully and which succumb to neurodegeneration.” —Age and Ageing Parkinson’s is a disease that usually starts very gradually and increases with age. In fact many of the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, like a slight tremor, a gradual slowing down of movement and a shuffling gait, are often viewed as a normal part of getting older. A recent review published in the journal Age and Ageing notes that one of the theories regarding the cause of Parkinson’s disease is that it is merely an exaggeration of the normal processes of aging, and that we might all be liable to develop Parkinson’s if we live long enough.

What Causes Aging?

The process of aging is variable. Some of us age faster than others. “Neurodegeneration” and “neuronal death” are terms doctor use to describe the aging and eventual death of our brain cells.

What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?

We now know that the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by a dwindling amount of a chemical messenger in the brain called dopamine. What remains a mystery is why brain cells stop making enough dopamine. The causes seem to be very similar to the causes of aging itself. These include environmental exposure, lifestyle and our genes:
  • Aging. Parkinson’s usually begins at about age 70. Age is the largest risk factor that we know for Parkinson’s. It can be hard to tell the difference between symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and symptoms of normal aging until the disease advances along with age.
  • Genes. If you have a close relative with Parkinson’s, you have a higher risk of being diagnosed with the disease. But even with a positive family history, your risk is not more than five percent. Researchers have discovered 13 abnormal genes associated with Parkinson’s, but these seem to only be responsible for a very few cases that occur in younger age groups.
  • Lifestyle. Several animal studies have suggested that a low calorie diet may slow down the aging process and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Exercise has been shown to slow the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. Curiously, a history of caffeine, cigarette smoking and the use of anti-inflammatory drugs seem to have a protective function against the disease.
  • Environmental exposures. Drinking well water, living in a rural area and being exposed to heavy metals, solvents and pesticides or herbicides have all been linked to Parkinson’s disease. We are just beginning to unravel the mysteries of how our environment may influence our genes to cause diseases like Parkinson’s.

Information for Caregivers: Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, there are many tried and true medications that help and many new treatments that show promise. In its early stages, Parkinson’s disease can be indistinguishable from normal symptoms of aging. Here are some signs that should prompt you to talk to your healthcare provider about the possibility of Parkinson’s disease:
  • Tremor that starts on one side, usually in a hand
  • Tremor that is more obvious at rest, like when one or both hands are resting in the lap
  • An overall slowing down of movement
  • Short, shuffling steps when walking
  • Stiffness of the legs, arms and neck
  • Loss of balance
  • A change in speech patterns
  • Loss of facial expressions
  • Problems with memory or mental functions
We don’t yet understand how environment and genes combine to cause Parkinson’s disease. We do know that the single biggest risk factor for the development of this disease and its progression is aging. Research continues to unravel the mysteries of Parkinson’s disease and how we age