Parkinson's Disease 101

Your brain produces dopamine-producing cells that control muscle movement. When this communication goes haywire, you may have a neurodegenerative disorder that neurologists call Parkinson's disease. This disease is named for an apothecarist (similar to a pharmacist) in Britain, James Parkinson, who authored a paper in 18717 entitled "shaking Palsy." In the 200 years since this paper was published, much has been learned about this disease, although a cure has not yet been found. Here is what you need to know.

What Are The Symptoms Of Parkinson's Disease?

Muscle tremors are the primary symptom. The patient is unable to control the use of their muscles reliably. The muscles become stiff, and even though the brain wants to move in a certain way, low dopamine levels prevent the neurotransmitters that transmit the signals from the brain to the muscles from working properly, or they may respond, but very slowly. Muscles control virtually every aspect of the human body's functioning ability, from walking and talking to eating and breathing. A shuffled gait eventually develops.

In addition to a loss of muscle control, other symptoms may develop. Depression and anxiety are common, as are incontinence, erectile dysfunction, and in the later stages, signs of dementia and memory issues, may eventually manifest themselves.

Who Gets Parkinson's Disease?

Scientists have now narrowed down five genes that potentially dictate the development of Parkinson's disease, however most cases are idiopathic, meaning the condition arises on it own rather than a result of heritability. Regardless, the identification of the genes will help researchers in their continued efforts for a cure.

Males are one and one-half times to twice as likely to develop Parkinson's disease compared to women. While most cases are diagnosed in adults over the age of 60, it is not unheard of in younger adults. Actor Michael J. Fox is an example of a younger adult male diagnosed with the disease. Doctors also suspect a head injury, such as in the case of the late boxer Muhammad Ali, as well as environmental toxins may also be responsible.

How Is Parkinson's Disease Treated?

A definitive diagnosis cannot be made until after death, but by ruling out other causes, neurologists can be reasonably sure of what they are dealing with. Initially, some antidepressants may be very useful in controlling symptoms, but as the disease progresses, a medication called levodopa may be used. This is delayed as long as possible, however, due to side effects, some of which can be painful.

Most patients with Parkinson's disease can expect to live a relatively long life, although falls and pneumonia can cut it short early. It's important to see a neurologist regularly who can chart the disease's progression.