April is National Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, affecting the hormone balance in the brain. Its symptoms can take months to several years to manifest, and many people with the disease have it long before they even notice the symptoms. Once the symptoms begin, however, they gradually worsen over time. With the proper management, it is possible to live with Parkinson’s for years.
The disease itself is not deadly, but its complications can be. The National Parkinson Foundation (NPF) reports that complications from the condition are the 14th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Awareness and early detection are therefore crucial for slowing the progression of this disease.
Identifying Parkinson’s Symptoms
Parkinson’s primarily affects those over age 60, and according to the National Institutes of Health, the symptoms progress more quickly in some patients than in others. For many, it can take years before Parkinson’s disease might make it difficult to walk, talk, or live independently. In fact, Parkinson’s symptoms in the early stages are often confused with normal signs of growing older.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms as signs of Parkinson’s:
- Tremors, often when your hands or fingers are relaxed
- Slowed movement
- A shuffling gait caused by dragging your feet as you walk
- Difficulty with everyday tasks
- Muscle stiffness that limits your range of motion
- Balance and posture issues
- Loss of automatic movements such as blinking, gesturing when talking, or swinging your arms when you walk
- Speech and writing changes that may include monotone speech, hesitation, slurring, or unusually small writing
If you have any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your doctor. She can rule out Parkinson’s disease or other serious causes, or she can ensure that you begin treatment as soon as possible.
Treating the Condition
Parkinson’s disease is caused by a decrease in dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Modern medicine offers several ways to increase dopamine levels or to substitute other chemicals in its place. These medications help those with Parkinson’s manage their symptoms, including improved mobility and fewer tremors.
Medication may be used to manage a number of Parkinson’s complications as well, according to the Mayo Clinic. These complications may include issues with swallowing, sleep disorders, elimination issues such as bladder problems and constipation, fatigue, blood pressure changes, or pain. Unfortunately, Parkinson’s also commonly leads to cognitive problems such as dementia in its later stages. These difficulties in thinking are not typically responsive to medication.
Living with Parkinson’s
Once treatment begins, many people experience significant improvement of their symptoms. As the disease progresses, though, some medications may begin to lose their effectiveness. This does not necessarily mean a decrease in the ability to control your symptoms, however.
In the early stages, living with the disorder often doesn’t require any major changes. Parkinson’s symptoms typically begin on one side of the body, only affecting the other in later stages. Your doctor may recommend exercises and other therapies to strengthen the lesser affected side.
National Parkinson’s Awareness Month was started to help seniors recognize the symptoms of the condition and seek out treatment. NPF reports that each year, between 50,000 and 60,000 people are diagnosed in the United States alone. Although a cure has not yet been found, taking early action could help you or your loved one continue to live independently for years to come.