Understanding This Neurodegenerative Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects roughly one million Americans, with rates expected to climb to 1.3 million by 2030. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s; approximately 90 000 people are diagnosed yearly. While there currently isn’t a cure for this condition, medications and other interventions can help to manage or slow its progression. This article will outline Parkinson’s disease, Parkinson’s symptoms to look for, and the current best treatments.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
As mentioned above, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that primarily impacts the nervous system causing symptoms throughout the body. Typically, it is characterized by changes to movement due to the impact on dopamine levels in the body. Dopamine helps to control smooth muscle movement, and Parkinson’s develops due to cell death in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, where dopamine is produced.
While this condition typically impacts those over 60 and is 1.5 times more common in men than women, a small part of the population, roughly 4%, can start to experience symptoms before age 50.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s symptoms can start quite subtly and usually impact one side of the body first, though the disease will likely progress to both sides. With that said, the side on which the symptoms first appeared will likely remain slightly worse. The earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease that can appear before the loss of muscle control include:
- Postural effects–stooping.
- Decreased or loss of smell–anosmia.
- Changes to the voice, especially a softening as the body loses control of the muscles in the throat and chest, including vocal cords.
- Constipation & other digestive issues–this can be a sign of many other imbalances in the body, so if you have chronic digestive issues work with a practitioner to get to the root cause.
- Handwriting changes–can become small and cramped.
As the disease progresses other more traditional Parkinson’s symptoms to be aware of include:
- Loss of facial expression.
- Tremors can often start in the fingers or hands and progressively worsen over time. Sometimes the shaking happens at rest and stops when performing tasks.
- Bradykinesia–this is the medical term for slower movements. It can impact everything from the length and speed of your steps to your ability to stand up from a seated position.
- Balance issues.
- Muscle stiffness can limit your range of motion.
- Decreased ability to perform unconscious movements such as blinking, swinging the arms while walking or smiling.
- Swallowing issues.
There are other Parkinson’s symptoms that are not directly nervous system-related such as:
- Sleep issues–restless leg syndrome, REM disorder and/or periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD).
- Issues with focus and thinking.
- Urinary incontinence.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Low blood pressure when standing.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. The earlier Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed, the better the prognosis as you and your doctor can monitor your health and take the appropriate treatment steps to manage symptoms, slow progression and improve your overall quality of life.
What Are Causes of Parkinson’s Disease?
One of the main causes of Parkinson’s disease is age–your risk increases over the age of 60. The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is not entirely known, but risk factors and contributing causes include:
- Sex – Those assigned male at birth are 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed.
- Age tends to develop between the ages of 50 and 60, with risk increasing with age.
- Some genetic markers increase risk, though this needs further study.
- Exposure to specific environmental triggers such as pesticides.
- Lewy bodies–researchers aren’t entirely sure why these appear in the brains of people with
- Parkinson’s disease but believe further research into these clumps in brain cells may shed more light on the cause.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and have any of the risk factors listed above, it is worth bringing up at your next doctor's appointment.
Parkinson’s Treatments Options
Currently, Parkinson’s treatment options tend to focus on medications and support from various therapists to help with the quality of life. Many people with Parkinson’s work closely with occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists to support their daily function and improve symptoms.
The medications recommended are designed to help increase dopamine levels to decrease symptoms. Some of the medications most routinely recommended include the following:
- Dopamine agonists mimic the effect of dopamine in the brain. They include pramipexole (Mirapex ER) and rotigotine (Neupro).
- Carbidopa-levodopa is the most common Parkinson’s medication. It’s a natural chemical that is converted to dopamine when it passes into the brain.
- Monoamine oxidase B (MAO B) inhibitors function by slowing down the breakdown of dopamine in the brain.
- Anticholinergics can help control the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease; however, they aren’t as commonly recommended any more due to the side effects.
- Adenosine receptor antagonists (A2A receptor antagonists) help increase the production of dopamine in the brain.
- Catechol O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors can help prolong the effects of levodopa by slowing the breakdown of dopamine.
It’s important to work closely with your doctor to help develop the medication treatment plan that is best for your specific symptoms and severity. In some cases, a surgical intervention called deep brain stimulation may be recommended. During this procedure, a surgeon will implant electrodes in the brain to help reduce Parkinson’s symptoms.
What Are The Dietary Recommendations for Parkinson’s Disease?
While medications, surgery and support from physical, occupational and/or speech therapists can go a long way in managing the disease and improving Parkinson’s symptoms, the Parkinson’s diet is also gaining traction as an adjunct treatment. While no diet alone is going to cure a condition as complex as Parkinson’s disease, some dietary changes can help increase dopamine production and overall improve quality of life.
- Antioxidants – Enjoying a diet that is rich in antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can help reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Oxidative stress can impact some of the other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including dementia and depression.
- Magnesium – It may help with muscle cramping and pain & low levels are associated with the development of Parkinson’s so enjoy foods such as cocoa, quinoa, citrus and leafy green veggies to get your daily magnesium.
- Omega-3 fats from salmon (and other cold-water fatty fish), walnuts, hemp hearts, etc., may help improve brain function in Parkinson’s patients.
- Fava beans contain levodopa, the same chemical in the most commonly prescribed Parkinson’s drug. Do not take them as a substitute for medication.
Some research has suggested that the Mediterranean/MIND diet can protect against dementia common in Parkinson’s disease. The outline of the MIND diet suggests those with dementia or neurodegenerative diseases consume the following daily:
- Mainly olive oil if added fat is used.
- 6+ servings a week of green leafy vegetables.
- 3+ servings a day of whole grains.
- 1+ servings a day of vegetables (other than green leafy).
- 5+ servings a week of nuts.
- 4+ meals a week of beans.
- 2+ servings a week of berries.
- 2+ meals a week of poultry.
- 1+ meals a week of fish.
As you can see, there is a lot that can be done through diet to support your overall health. Talk to your doctor about the Parkinson’s diet or MIND diet at your next appointment for more information.