What you know about Parkinson’s disease may be limited to hearing an interview with Michael J. Fox or reading about the diagnosis of Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Alan Alda, or Ozzy Osbourne.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing (“dopaminergic”) neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra. It essentially causes dopamine-producing brain cells to die. The symptoms, and how quickly or slowly they progress, are often different from one person to another. People with PD may experience:
- Tremor, mainly at rest; described as a pill-rolling tremor in hands; other forms of tremor possible
- Bradykinesia (slowness of movement)
- Limb rigidity
- Gait and balance problems
Those are the physical symptoms you equate with Parkinson’s. It can also affect your voice, hence Ronstadt, Diamond, and Osbourne calling ends to their storied musical careers. Loss of smell, constipation, depression, and REM sleep disorder can occur years before the diagnosis of PD.
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, more than 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s, and 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the illness every year. Today, America has more PD diagnoses — nearly 1 million — than the number of people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined. The foundation projects that number will rise to 1.2 million by 2030 as the population ages.
While men are 1.5 times more likely to have Parkinson’s disease than women, it’s far from a man’s disease. What is important to know, especially for diagnosis and treatment purposes, is that (like many diseases), there are a few differences in the way a man experiences PD and a woman experiences PD.
In general, women with PD have similar motor and non-motor symptoms as men with PD. However, according to a recent study from the Netherlands, more women experience tremors than men (67% compared to 48%). However, data from a study at the University of Kansas suggest that women have better scores for motor abilities than men, based on the scoring of the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale. These differences in motor symptoms were significant only in patients who had PD for more than five years. Women are also more likely to have depression and to report impairments in daily living. Men have a higher incidence of REM sleep behavior disorder than women.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your physician to rule out other illnesses. If he/she suspects there is an underlying condition to your symptoms, your physician will refer you to a neurologist who can diagnose PD. There’s no one test for PD. You will undergo a series of neurological exams. More often than not, diagnosis for PD is a process of ruling out what it is NOT versus what it IS.
While there is no cure, there are numerous medications that can hold symptoms at bay. Regular exercise (including programs like Rock Steady Boxing, which was founded in Indianapolis) can provide much relief from both the physical and mental challenges that accompany this condition.