Parkinson’s Disease is a slow and progressive neurological condition.
PD occurs when the nerve cells in the brain (neurons) that produce dopamine begin to break down or die. The nervous system uses dopamine to communicate between nerve cells. Dopamine affects our moods, movement, and memory, among other things. Parkinson’s Disease attacks the nerve cells that produce dopamine. Individuals diagnosed with PD may experience tremors, difficulty speaking and swallowing generalized slowness, and shuffling. PD has been diagnosed in over a million people in the US alone.
That number doesn’t include the number of people who love those diagnosed and its impact on their lives.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about why people develop Parkinson’s Disease. Studies indicate it may be hereditary, but family members’ occurrence isn’t consistent enough to prove this true. Some environmental triggers have been cited, but the risk of developing PD due to exposure to these is still low. Stress, particularly life events that can be traumatic, can also cause PD.
Specific motor deficits need to be present for an official diagnosis of PD. However, there are more subtle signs that can occur years before. Below are some of the most common ones:
- REM behavior disorder (RBD) – This is a newly developed, sudden movement during sleep. Specifically during the REM cycle of sleep. Often described as “acting out dreams,” this symptom may go unnoticed by the person exhibiting the behavior. A spouse or partner who is woken up frequently by sudden jerks or kicks may be the person who first notices that there’s an issue at all. While RBD doesn’t mean that PD is present, those who experience it (with no known cause) are at higher risk of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the future.
- Loss of sense of smell (anosmia) – Losing your sense of smell (when there is no other discernable cause) can be an early predictor of a PD diagnosis down the road. When related to PD, anosmia happens when the protein that leads to Parkinson’s Disease accumulates in the part of the brain that is responsible for the sense of smell. It’s important to note that losing your sense of smell does not mean you will be diagnosed with PD. However, for those that experience this, there is a 50% chance they will be diagnosed in the next five to ten years.
- Voice changes – If there is a noticeable and new change in your voice’s softness or volume (with no other cause), this can be an early PD symptom.
- Stiffness or difficulty moving – one of the early signs that something may be going on is a new stiffness with movements. Noticing that your arms don’t swing the same way they used to may indicate that something is going on.
- Digestive issues – A myriad of things, including diet, medications, and other conditions, can cause digestive problems. However, new and ongoing constipation and a feeling of being full even after eating small meals can be an early indicator of Parkinson’s Disease.
- Changes in handwriting (micrographia) – This may seem like an odd symptom. Still, if you notice that your writing has become smaller or crowded together, it may be an early sign of Parkinson’s Disease.
- Lack of facial expression (facial masking) – This one may be pointed out to you by others. Others may tell you that your face is “serious” or that you look like you’re in a bad mood. It’s important to note that some medications can cause this. However, if you’re experiencing new facial masking with no known cause, it is worth speaking with your doctor.
- Stooping or hunching over – this is a symptom that is commonly associated with PD. If you’ve noticed a difference in your posture, it may be an early symptom of Parkinson’s Disease.
If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect to live with Parkinson’s later in life.
Most of the above symptoms can be due to other conditions, lifestyle habits, and certain medications. If you are noticing some changes in these areas of your life and there doesn’t seem to be an apparent reason why it can be a cause for concern. Fortunately, there is information about managing the symptoms and even slow the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.
It’s common knowledge that diet and exercise are crucial to health and good quality of life. This is particularly true with this disease. Staying active with regular exercise has been shown to slow the progression of PD. Most of us are aware that exercise is beneficial for the physical detriments caused by Parkinson’s (muscle weakness, stiffness, falls).
Studies done have shown that exercise works on a neurologic level as well.
Regular exercise won’t replace or repair degenerating neurons. It can, however, encourage the brain to use what dopamine it does produce more productively. The human brain is always adapting and evolving as it needs to function most efficiently. This adaptive behavior is called neuroplasticity. When observed in Parkinson’s patients, researchers theorize that the neuroplasticity benefits gained through regular physical activity outweigh the disease’s degenerative effects.
If you do find yourself exhibiting any of the early symptoms of PD, it’s important to remember that you do have a measure of control.
First, speak with your doctor about your concerns. They will help you determine if Parkinson’s may impact you personally in the future. If this is the case, do what you can now. Maintain a healthy diet that’s rich in lean protein, whole foods, and fiber. Stay hydrated. Generally, it would be best if you drank half your body weight in ounces of water each day. If you don’t already have one, start a regular exercise routine, and be consistent with it. And do what you can to mitigate and address the stress you have in your life.A Place At Home has compassionate and professional caregivers available 24 hours a day. If Parkinson’s is impacting your life, contact your local A Place At Home office. We are honored to help.