What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is an illness that affects the part of your brain that controls how you move your body. It can come on so slowly that you don’t even notice it at first. But over time, what starts as a little shakiness in your hand can have an impact on how you walk, talk, sleep, and think.

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There are an estimated 1 million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease and more than 10 million people worldwide. Approximately 10% of Parkinson’s diagnoses occur before age 50—these diagnoses are called Early Onset (or Young Onset) Parkinson’s disease.

You’re more likely to get it when you’re 60 and older. It’s also possible for it to start when you’re younger, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often.

Many people wonder if you’re more likely to get Parkinson’s disease if you have a relative who has it. Although the role that heredity plays isn’t completely understood, we do know that if a close relative like a parent, brother, or sister has Parkinson’s, there is a greater chance of developing the disease. But Parkinson’s disease is not contagious. You can’t get it by simply being around someone who has it.

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There’s no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but you can get treatment and support to help manage the symptoms.  While Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, disease complications can be serious.

The first step to living well with Parkinson’s disease is to understand the disease and the progression.

What Are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include tremors or trembling (shaking hands are often the most telltale signs of it); difficulty maintaining balance and coordination; trouble standing or walking; stiffness; and general slowness.  The progression of symptoms is often a bit different from one person to another due to the diversity of the disease.

Over time, a person with Parkinson’s may have trouble smiling, talking, or swallowing. Their faces may appear flat and without expression, but people with Parkinson’s continue to have feelings — even though their faces don’t always show it. Sometimes people with the disease can have trouble with thinking and remembering too.

Because of problems with balance, some people with Parkinson’s fall down a lot, which can result in broken bones. Some people with Parkinson’s may also feel sad or depressed and lose interest in the things they used to do.

What Causes Parkinson’s?

Doctors aren’t sure why all those brain cells start dying. They think it’s a mix of your genes and something in the environment, but the reason is not straightforward.

In the very deep parts of the brain, there is a collection of nerve cells that help control movement, known as the basal ganglia (say: BAY-sul GAN-glee-ah). In a person with Parkinson’s disease, these nerve cells are damaged and do not work as well as they should.

These nerve cells make and use a brain chemical called dopamine (say: DOH-puh-meen) to send messages to other parts of the brain to coordinate body movements. When someone has Parkinson’s disease, dopamine levels are low. So, the body doesn’t get the right messages it needs to move normally.

Experts agree that low dopamine levels in the brain cause the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but no one really knows why the nerve cells that produce dopamine get damaged and die.

Dopamine plays a vital role in regulating the movement of the body. A reduction in dopamine is responsible for many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Someone could have a change in a gene tied to Parkinson’s, but never get the disease. That happens a lot. And a bunch of people could work side by side in a place with chemicals linked to Parkinson’s, but only a few of them end up with it.

It’s a complex puzzle, and scientists are still trying to put all the pieces together.

How Is Parkinson’s Treated?

Although there’s currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease, treatments are available to help reduce the main symptoms and maintain quality of life for as long as possible.

If a doctor thinks a person has Parkinson’s disease, there’s reason for hope. Medicine can be used to eliminate or improve the symptoms, like the body tremors. And some experts think that a cure may be found soon.

For now, a medicine called levodopa is often given to people who have Parkinson’s disease. Called “L-dopa,” this medicine increases the amount of dopamine in the body and has been shown to improve a person’s ability to walk and move around. Other drugs also help decrease and manage the symptoms by affecting dopamine levels. In some cases, surgery may be needed to treat it. The person would get anesthesia, a special kind of medicine to prevent pain during the operation.

You may not need any treatment during the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, as symptoms are usually mild. However, you may need regular appointments with your specialist so your condition can be monitored.