Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that affects over 100,000 Canadians to date, with over 6,000 Canadians being diagnosed each year. The average age of onset for Parkinson’s disease is 60, some can be diagnosed at the age of 40 – and in rare cases, even younger. This is known as early-onset Parkinson’s disease.
Famously named after James Parker, who published an essay om the disease in 1918, Parkinson’s disease develops when the cells that produce the chemical known as dopamine die. Dopamine acts as a messenger that tells your brain when you want to move part of your body. However, when these cells die, your dopamine levels drop, making you unable to control your movements and you begin to develop symptoms relating to Parkinson’s including body tremors, slowness and stiffness, muscle rigidity, and impaired balance. Other symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease may also include fatigue, soft or slurred speech, stooped posture, difficulty handwriting, constipation. Non-motor symptoms may also develop such as depression, trouble swallowing, and cognitive changes such as dementia. It’s also not uncommon for individuals with Parkinson’s to develop depression and anxiety as a result of the diagnosis. While the exact cause of Parkinson’s is not known, it is suspected that it is due to both genetic and environmental factors.
There are typically 5 different stages to Parkinson’s disease. During stage 1, symptoms may be mild and not interfere with one’s quality of life. During stage 2, daily functioning and activities may become more difficult as symptoms worsen. During stage 3, individuals may notice that they are moving more slowly, losing balance more easily, and have frequent falls. During stage 4, symptoms become severe and the individual may need assistance performing daily activities, including walking. Finally, during stage 5, which is considered the most advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease and when the diagnosed individual will need full-time assistance. All of that being said, Parkinson’s disease will affect each individual differently and it can progress at different rates.
As there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, the main goal is to reduce the symptoms associated with it which can be done by prescribing medications. Many of the medications used work on the chemistry of the brain and can, quite dramatically, improve these symptoms – though as the disease progresses the medication prescribed can lose its effectiveness. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, patients with Parkinson’s disease may also benefit from occupational therapy to help with everyday activities, physical therapy to help with balance, mobility and flexibility, as well as speech therapy. It’s also important to have a good support system of medical professionals to help you manage your disease. A neurologist, for example, specializes in these and other neurological-related disorders and will be able to not only diagnose Parkinson’s disease, but monitor patients with Parkinson’s and determine a treatment plan, while family physicians like Dr. Ali Ghahary will provide ongoing general care to patients including annual exams. Other members of a patient’s health care team may include a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker and dietitian.