The incidence of Parkinson’s disease is increasing – learn more about it

Most of us know someone with Parkinson’s disease, but how much do we know about the condition? Would you be able to recognise the early signs of Parkinson’s in your loved one? Is there anything we can do to prevent or slow the progress of this debilitating condition?

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common degenerative neurological disorder and symptoms most often start to show in persons over 60 years of age. It causes nerve cells that produce dopamine to die off gradually. Dopamine is an important brain chemical, involved in transmitting signals which regulate body movement, thought processes and mood.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s gradually become worse as the person’s level of dopamine decreases. Changes in movement are the most obvious symptoms and doctors look for at least two of the following to make a diagnosis: tremors in the fingers and later in the hands, slower movement, and body stiffness which doesn’t improve when the person moves around. Other motor symptoms include a stooping posture, arms that swing unnaturally when walking, a mask-like facial expression, softer speech, and handwriting that becomes smaller and unclear.

Non-motor symptoms include changes in thinking such as a shorter attention span and memory loss, mood and sleep disorders, fatigue and dizziness.

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are often ignored as part of normal ageing. One of these symptoms alone could point to another condition but a few of them together calls for a visit to a medical practitioner. While there is no treatment as yet to cure or even halt the gradual worsening of symptoms, early diagnosis and management of Parkinson’s can slow disease progression and improve quality of life.

Parkinson’s was first described around 200 years ago but researchers are still trying to unravel exactly why the nerve cells that produce dopamine die off.

The cause seems to be a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.

There is a direct hereditary link in 10-15% of cases. Researchers have also identified around 20 gene mutations that increase the risk for Parkinson’s – but not everyone with these mutations develops the disease. Scientists are discovering links between Parkinson’s and faulty biochemical processes and inflammation in the brain. This is where the focus turns to environmental toxins and unhealthy lifestyles which can damage brain cells over time.

Studies have shown links between a higher incidence of Parkinson’s and exposure to certain pesticides, brain trauma, and periods of extreme psychological stress. Many persons diagnosed with Parkinson’s have a deficiency in certain nutrients, particularly Vit D and Omega-3 fatty acids. On the other hand, studies which have followed large numbers of people over long periods have found that the incidence of Parkinson’s is lower in those who exercised and remained fit throughout their life. Regular exercise also appears to slow down the progression of the disease.

The incidence of Parkinson’s disease is expected to increase together with the increase in life expectancy of the general population. As with other chronic conditions, you might prevent or delay the disease is through adopting a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, a healthy diet, enough sleep and managing stress levels.

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