Parkinson’s Disease – What is It?

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disease of the brain. It affects parts of the brain that are associated with normal movement and balance. The disease is caused when nerve cells or neurons in an area of the brain die or become impaired by the loss of brain cells that produce dopamine.

Dopamine enables smooth, coordinated movements.  The classic symptoms of this condition are a tremor or shaking of the hand or other limbs while at rest.  

When actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with the disease, the illness as well as its effects on humans became headline news. But how can we combat it? First, we need to understand what Parkinson’s Disease does to the body.

In addition to motor symptoms such as slowness of movement, tremors, and stiffness, most people develop other health problems related to Parkinson’s. These symptoms are known as non-motor symptoms.

Non-motor symptoms include:

    • Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and irritability
    • Cognitive changes such as problems with focused attention and planning, slowing of thought, language and memory difficulties, personality changes, dementia
    • Hallucinations and delusions
    • Drop in blood pressure when standing, or light-headedness
    • Constipation and a feeling of fullness after eating small amounts
    • Pain
    • Fatigue
    • Vision problems
    • Excessive sweating
    • Increase in dandruff or oily skin
    • Urinary urgency, and frequency
    • Loss of sense of smell
    • Weight gain
    • Impulsive control issues

How is it Acquired?

About 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year affecting about 50 percent more men than women.  No one is sure why people get the disease. Exactly what causes Parkinson’s disease is unclear. Most experts think that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible. The average age of diagnosis is 60 years old, however, 5 to 10 percent of people with Parkinson’s disease have “early-onset” disease that begins before the age of 50. Early-onset forms of the disease are often inherited, though not always. People with one or more close relatives who have Parkinson’s disease have an increased risk of developing the disease themselves.

What are the Signs of Parkinson’s Disease?

Early signs of the condition include:

    • Constipation
    • Sleepiness or drowsiness
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Decreased sense of smell
    • REM behavior disorder  (In this the individuals act upon their dreams by kicking, hitting, or talking during a dream or REM sleep).

Parkinson’s disease is not a fatal illness, it is a progressive illness. At early years most patients with adequate response to medications can lead a normal or near-normal life with normal life expectancy.  However, it’s a degenerative disorder that usually progresses until it leaves its patients completely debilitated. The condition usually worsens over an average of 15 years. Once a patient is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, there are many things that they may do to maintain their quality of life and live with Parkinson’s.  They may learn about nutrition; daily living changes; sexual health; freezing (when a body part is unable to move); and safety at home.

The National Parkinson Foundation has programs to support Parkinson’s patients as well as caregivers.  The Foundation has made great strides in Parkinson’s care, research, and community outreach. Donations to the Parkinson’s Foundation go directly to support and develop treatments for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Your gift can help make life better for people with Parkinson’s.
 Go to to donate.                

The NINDS and the National Institute of Mental Health jointly support two national brain specimen banks. These banks supply research scientists around the world with nervous system tissue from patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders. They need tissue from patients with Parkinson’s disease so that scientists can study and understand the disorder. Those who may be interested in donating should contact: Rashed M. Nagra, Ph.D., Director or contact the Human Brain and Spinal Fluid Resource Center at Neurology Research (127A) W. Los Angeles Healthcare Center.

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