Parkinson’s is a devastating neurodegenerative disease that dramatically affects the daily lives of those who suffer from it. Voluntary movement, walking, speech, balance, posture, even handwriting and facial expression, are compromised by the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Although Parkinson’s symptoms primarily affect movement, people in later stages of the disease often experience psychiatric symptoms, such as depression, dementia, and disturbed sleep, as well as urinary, digestive, and skin problems. There is no cure for Parkinson’s at this time; symptoms are treated with medications and a surgical procedure called deep brain stimulation, and can be managed with a variety of adjustments to the living environment.
The precise mechanism by which Parkinson’s causes movement problems and eventual disability is not completely understood. However, abnormal protein build-ups in neurons, known as Lewy bodies, are thought to play a major role. Lewy bodies concentrate on neurons in parts of the brain responsible for movement, such as the substantial nigra, which are then unable to produce the essential neurotransmitter dopamine.
Although it’s not possible to predict exactly who will be affected by Parkinson’s disease, there are several risk factors that can predispose someone to the condition. Age is perhaps the greatest risk factor: while younger adults occasionally develop early-onset Parkinson’s, most people start experiencing symptoms after the age of 60. Gender is another risk factor. Although women are also susceptible to Parkinson’s, men develop the disease at higher rates. Heredity is also a factor. Someone who is closely related to a person with Parkinson’s has a higher likelihood of developing the disease. People who work in occupations where they experience long-term exposure to certain toxic chemicals commonly found in herbicides and pesticides, such as agricultural work, are also more likely to suffer from Parkinson’s later in life. Head trauma can also increase the likelihood that someone will develop Parkinson’s disease.