Affecting slightly more men than women, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive illness with symptoms that are normally first noticed in people aged 50 years and over. Around one in 500 people have Parkinson’s disease and an estimated 127,000 people in the UK have the condition.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological condition that affects the brain and central nervous system. It progresses over time, having an impact on talking, movement and walking. As the condition advances, it can affect almost every aspect of day-to-day life but thanks to modern day treatments, the majority of people who have Parkinson’s disease do not have a shortened life expectancy.
People can be affected differently but the three main symptoms restrict physical movement. More commonly, symptoms include tremors (shaking) in the hands and arms that occur mainly when the limbs are relaxed or resting.
Slow movements – known as bradykinesia – make everyday tasks more difficult and can lead to a distinctive shuffling walk with small steps. Muscle stiffness or rigidity can make it difficult to make facial expressions and move around. This can also result in painful muscle cramps, known as dystonia.
People who have Parkinson’s disease can experience one or more other symptoms. These are many and varied and can include bowel and bladder problems; dizziness and falling; restless legs syndrome; fatigue; speech and communication problems; insomnia; excessive sweating; excessive saliva and difficulty in swallowing.
Some people experience mental and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, memory problems, difficulties in planning and organising activities and sometimes dementia – incorporating personality changes, hallucinations and delusional behaviour.
What triggers Parkinson’s disease?
It occurs following a loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. Dopamine transmits messages from the brain to the muscles that co-ordinate and control body movement. As the cells die, less dopamine is produced so the messages are sent more slowly. Parkinson’s symptoms appear when around 80% of dopamine has been lost. Research continues to try and establish the cause.
Parkinson’s disease diagnosis
A visit to a GP is normally the first step; the patient will be asked to describe their health problems and to perform simple physical and mental tasks. If Parkinson’s is suspected, they will be referred to a specialist neurologist or a geriatrician who specialises in this area. There’s no one test that conclusively diagnoses Parkinson’s and symptoms will be reviewed every 6 to 12 months.
Can you prevent Parkinson’s disease?
Although there’s no known way to prevent Parkinson’s disease, some researchers believe that people who eat less red meat and dairy products in favour of more fruit and vegetables, high-fibre foods, Omega-3 rich oils and fish may have some protection against the condition.
Treatment for Parkinson’s disease
A treatment programme can be drawn up by healthcare professionals and agreed by carers or family to meet the patient’s individual needs. This will help now and it will also assess future needs, although it must be reviewed and updated regularly.
To improve fitness levels, a physiotherapist can help to relieve muscle stiffness through exercise and movement (manipulation). An occupational therapist can help work out practical solutions for areas of difficulty in day-to-day life such as shopping or dressing. Speech and language therapy and diet advice are also part of the treatment programme.
By participating in self-care and self-management courses to help increase confidence, people with Parkinson’s can better manage their condition for a higher quality of life.