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Like many incurable and progressive conditions, Parkinson's Disease (PD) – a disorder of the brain and central nervous system that impacts movement and speech – may have small, subtle or vague symptoms at first. Actor Michael J. Fox, who is one of the most well-known individuals living with the disease, said he was diagnosed after feeling a twitch in his left pinky finger at the age of 29. In 2020, he was forced to quit acting due to his unreliable memory, speech and mobility.
April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, and the Parkinson's Foundation is working to raise awareness and celebrate the optimistic spirit of the PD community. With a new diagnosis every nine minutes, there are more than 10 million people worldwide living with the disease today. With cases rising exponentially during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to understand Parkinson's and its symptoms.
“There are many early warning signs of Parkinson’s to look out for,” Dr. Abdel Kaleel, a neurologist at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont. tells Yahoo Canada. “It’s important to contact your doctor straight away if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of the disease, as a quick diagnosis is imperative.”
Read on to learn what these warning signs are, who is at risk, and what you can do if you think you or someone you know has Parkinson's Disease.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
“Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder which impacts and decreases dopamine-producing neurons in the brain," Kaleel explains. "Symptoms typically develop over time. There are treatment options available such as physical therapy, mobility aids, surgery and medication.”
While the disease itself is not often fatal, Amanda Ryall, a chronic disease specialist from the Windsor-Essex Health Unit, explains that complications from Parkinson’s can be very serious.
“The disorder can lead to stiffness, shaking and difficulty with coordination, balance and walking. As it progresses, patients may have behavioural and mental changes, depression, problems sleeping and fatigue," she explains.
Both men and women can get Parkinson's, but the condition affects approximately 50 per cent more men than women. While there is currently no cure, all treatment options aim to improve symptoms while slowing the progression of the disease.
What are the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s?
Luckily, there are a plethora of signs and symptoms that can help determine if you have Parkinson's Disease. The most common symptoms are tremors (in the hands, legs, jaw, mouth and legs), slowness of movement, stiff limbs and impaired coordination and balance.
“There are also other important early signs of the disease to be aware of,” says Ryall. “If your handwriting suddenly gets smaller or more crowded, you lose your sense of smell, or your voice sounds softer, these are all things to track.”
Kaleel adds that “urinary problems, constipation, difficulty chewing or swallowing, sleep disruptions, or sudden changes in skin tone” are other signs of PD.
Symptoms and the rate of progression vary among individuals, which is why the disease can be difficult to accurately diagnose. Ryall explains that while some people dismiss these early warning signs as the normal effects of aging, “it’s important to contact your doctor to investigate any symptoms further. Don't ignore these subtle hints.”
Who is at risk for developing Parkinson’s?
According to Kaleel, “risk factors in the progression and development of Parkinson’s include hereditary links, advancing age such as being over the age of 50, and being subjected to toxins. Males are also far more likely to get the disease than women are.”
Environmental factors also play a role in the development of PD, such as exposure to pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals, which can damage the part of the brain where dopamine is produced.
Additionally, individuals with a sibling or parent affected by Parkinson’s are approximately two to three times more likely to develop the disease.
“There’s been an incredible amount of research into the genetics and DNA of those with Parkinson's to help understand how this plays a role,” says Ryall.
“If you’re a boxer or athlete, or have experienced repeated concussions or blows to the head, you might be more at risk," Kaleel adds. "But at this point, the research is too limited to be one hundred per cent sure."
How can I prevent Parkinson’s Disease?
As there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, proven ways to prevent the disease remains a mystery. However, scientists and doctors do know that aging, stress and inflammation can contribute to cell damage and abnormal dopamine levels in the brain.
“As there isn’t a cure, it’s vital that we prevent the disease before symptoms arise,” says Ryall. “One of the most critical things we can do for our long-term cognitive and physical health is to keep our stress levels down to reduce inflammation in the body.”
Other research has shown that regular aerobic exercise and consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and Omega-3 fatty acids may have some benefit.
“Vitamins found in green tea, vegetables, fruits and dark, leafy greens can dramatically decrease inflammation and promote a healthy brain. Omega-3s found in wild-caught fish, eggs and walnuts are also known to do the same,” explains Kaleel. “I’d also eat organic and local produce when possible to reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides found in your food.
“Regular exercise can also help promote longevity and increase lung capacity, bone density and mobility,” adds Ryall.