Parkinson's Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

More than 10 million individuals currently live with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) worldwide, and an estimated one million people are expected to be living with the disease by 2020 in just the United States alone, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. This is more than the number of people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis combined. Each year, about 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed with PD.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s Disease affects the central nervous system. In essence, it alters the way the body processes and completes tasks, as it negatively impacts the spinal cord and brain. It begins gradually, and it worsens over time. It is characterized by the presence of tremors, but it also causes slowed movements and stiffness.

Parkinson’s Disease occurs when the collection of nerve cells known as the basal ganglia become damaged and no longer work as they should. These nerve cells are the primary nerves that control movement in the body. The nerves work by producing dopamine that sends messages to other parts of the body, coordinating movements. When the nerves are damaged, dopamine levels in the body drop. Therefore, there is a direct correlation between PD and low levels of dopamine. These low dopamine levels cause difficulty for the brain to communicate messages to the muscles, which in turn, causes the movement problems that are associated with Parkinson’s.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

PD affects everyone differently, so symptoms vary from person to person. In addition, early signs are mild enough that they often go undetected and are only recognized as signs of Parkinson’s disease in retrospect after a diagnosis has been made. However, there are some commonly noted symptoms associated with PD that most people will experience eventually. Symptoms don’t usually appear until after the age of 60, but they can occur in younger individuals. They are as follows:

  • Slowed Movement:Parkinson’s slows movements, which can make completing simple tasks time consuming and frustratingly difficult. It can become difficult to stand up from a sitting position, and the feet begin to drag while walking.
  • Tremors:Shaking or tremors are perhaps the most associated symptom with PD. It often begins in the fingers or hands and then progresses. The hands may tremble when unengaged. Pill-rolling, which is when an individual rubs their forefinger and thumb back and forth, can also occur.
  • Impaired Balance and Posture:PD often causes the posture to stoop. People may struggle with balance issues.
  • Rigid Muscles:Stiff muscles are also a common symptom of PD. This can occur in any part of the body and individuals will notice pain, and it will limit their range of motion.
  • Difficulty with Automatic Movements:This means PD sufferers will struggle with unconscious movements, like smiling, blinking, or swinging their arms, movements that are often done without conscious thought.
  • Speech and Writing Changes: Parkinson’s disease also negatively impacts an individual’s ability to write and speak clearly. The speech will often become slurred or sufferers will speak too quickly or softly or hesitate when communicating. Sometimes, speech becomes too monotone and includes odd inflections.

Stages and Progression of Parkinson’s Disease

There are several stages of Parkinson’s that most people with the disease will progress through. They are as follows:

Stage 1: Mildest Parkinson’s Disease

This is the mildest form of PD. Individuals might have symptoms, but they are likely not severe enough to alter their lifestyle or interfere with their daily tasks. In fact, during this stage, symptoms are often so mild they are overlooked. Family and friends or those closest to the individual might notice small changes, like slight differences in the way a person walks, their posture or their facial expressions. If there are tremors or movement difficulties during this mild stage of Parkinson’s, it’s often relegated to one side of the body. Medications are often helpful when treating symptoms.

Stage 2: Moderate Parkinson’s Disease

This stage involves more noticeable symptoms. Tremors, stiffness and trembling become more noticeable, and facial expressions are often noticeably different. Stage two does not involve impaired balance but can include muscle stiffness, which makes completing tasks difficult. In addition, an individual might have difficulty walking or notice posture changes. Symptoms are noticed on both sides of the body during this stage. Those in stage two can usually remain living independently but might find it harder to complete daily tasks. The progression from stage one to stage two can take place over months or years. There is no way to accurately predict how quickly any one individual will progress from stage to stage.

Stage 3: Middle Stage of Parkinson’s Disease

This stage marks a significant turning point in the progression of PD. While many of the symptoms remain similar to those experienced in stage two, individuals will also notice a loss of balance and have decreased reflexes. Falls become more common in this stage and movements are slower. Occupational therapy and medications can decrease symptoms during this stage, helping individuals remain living on their own. However, sufferers might need some help from others during this stage to complete regular household tasks.

Stage 4: Moderate Stage of Parkinson’s Disease

The main difference between stage three and stage four of PD is the independence factor. While it’s possible for an individual to stand without assistance, they might need a device, like a walker. Many sufferers will be unable to live on their own once they hit stage four of PD. In fact, it can create safety dangers for some individuals to live alone through stage four.

Stage 5: Advanced Stage of Parkinson’s Disease

This is the final stage of PD that causes individuals to stiffen to the point they are unable to stand, walk or move much at all. Individuals will often need the aid of a wheelchair to move around and will be unable to stand on their own. In most cases, during stage five, sufferers will require around-the-clock care.

Causes and Risk Factors of Parkinson’s Disease

There is no known cause of Parkinson’s disease; however, there are some conditions that are linked to the development of the disease. These are considered risk factors due to their close association with PD:

  • Low dopamine levels
  • Lewy bodies
  • Family history of Parkinson’s
  • Autoimmune factors, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Toxin exposure, including pesticides and herbicides

Diagnosis and Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease

Neurologists diagnose Parkinson’s Disease by evaluating a person’s medical history and performing a neurological examination. Doctors often use medications to treat symptoms. If they note an improvement, they know the diagnosis of PD is correct. If medication doesn’t perform as intended or expected with PD, they consider the possibility that the patient has another condition that mimics the symptoms of the condition.

Medications are often crucial in the treatment of PD and the sooner the diagnosis is made, the more effective the treatment will be. Although there is no cure, medications, surgical procedures and other therapies have been shown effective at reliving some of the symptoms.

Common Treatments

Medications for PD:

  • Drugs that affect the chemicals in the brain
  • Drugs that increase dopamine levels, such as Levodopa
  • Drugs that control nonmotor symptoms
  • MAO-B inhibitors that slow the enzyme breakdown
  • COMT inhibitors to break down dopamine
  • Anticholinergic drugs that reduce muscle stiffness and tremors
  • Amantadine and antiviral drugs that reduce the instance of involuntary movements

Deep Brain Stimulation

Sometimes, patients don’t respond well to the medications listed above. In these patients, doctors may suggest deep brain stimulation, or DBS. It is a surgical procedure that implants electrodes into the brain, stimulating it to reduce movement-related PD symptoms like rigidity, movement slowness, tremors, and more.

Other Therapies

Patients can also try occupational, speech and physical therapies to counteract the symptoms of PD. This can help improve their gait, tremors, rigidity, voice disorders and cognitive problems worsened by Parkinson’s. In addition, supportive therapies like exercise strengthen specific muscles to improve balance. A healthy diet can also be helpful in the treatment of PD.

Parkinson’s Disease Care Options

At Heritage, our memory care services and dementia care services focus on Parkinson’s Disease dementia symptoms. Our residences and programs help people with PD live their very best life while managing the symptoms of the disease. While there is no known cure and the disease will progress, the earlier the better in terms of getting your loved on the help they need to fight back. Studies have proven early intervention imperative to the outcome and success of PD treatments.

When your family member is suffering from PD, the primary goal is to keep them safe and engaged with the right therapies. Both of these goals can be achieved by placing them in a high quality assisted living community that has the resources available to not only help them physically with daily tasks but to help them maintain a high quality of life as their PD progresses.

To learn more about our community, contact us or request our free Guide for Finding the Right Memory Care Community.