Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative brain disorder that causes the brain cells responsible for making dopamine to stop working and eventually die. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical required to send signals from the brain, necessary for quick and well-coordinated movement. As these dopamine-making cells die off, the symptoms of Parkinson’s become more pronounced.
Parkinson’s affects around one in every hundred people over the age of 60. The average age of diagnosis is around 60 years old, although the disease can present much earlier as evidenced by celebrities with the disorder, such as Michael J Fox.
As Parkinson’s is a slowly progressive condition, it can often take many years before the symptoms become obvious and it has little effect on life expectancy. Different people will experience a different combination of symptoms.
- Close to 10,000 New Zealanders have Parkinson’s
- Twice as likely to affect European New Zealanders than Māori
- Affects 1% of people over 60
Signs and Symptoms:
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is based on the patient’s symptoms and signs. There is no objective test for Parkinson’s and misdiagnosis is relatively common, so it’s important to consult a specialist.
The most pronounced symptoms of Parkinson’s include:
- Slowness of movement, known as bradykinesia
- Shaking or trembling when at rest, specifically in the hands
- Problems with coordination and balance
- Rigidity or stiffness in the limbs
Causes and Treatment:
There is no known cause and, at present, no known cure for Parkinson’s, although there is strong evidence to suggest that both genetic and environmental factors play a part.
Researchers have identified a few rare instances where the disease appears to be caused by a specific mutated gene that is shown to be hereditary. In other isolated instances however, environmental factors have been shown to be the sole cause of the disease; in the 1980’s for example, a group of intravenous drug users accidentally injected a chemical called MPTP which caused the users to contract the disease.
There is still no treatment to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, but there are medications to treat the symptoms. Clinical trials are underway into medications which slow the rate of cell death, and improvements in Deep Brain Stimulation are making their way into clinical practice.
- Parkinson’s New Zealand - parkinsons.org.nz