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What Is Parkinson Disease

By Gray Rollins

Parkinson disease is a brain disorder that affects nearly 1.5 million Americans and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed annually. There is no known cure but with research and medication there is hope.

A British physician, Dr. James Parkinson, first described the disease in 1817. It is characterized by slowness, tremors, stiffness and a loss of balance. Only two of these symptoms need to be present, especially if they are more apparent on one side of the body over the other, for a diagnosis of the condition to be made.

Brain cells called neurons are responsible for passing along electrical impulses throughout the brain, from one cell to the next, allowing the brain to function normally. In Parkinson disease, cells in a certain part of the brain called the substantia nigra begin to die or become impaired. These cells are particularly important because they produce a chemical called dopamine. This chemical is responsible for smooth and coordinated movement of the body's muscles. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, "When approximately 80% of the dopamine-producing cells are damaged, the symptoms of Parkinson disease appear."

So who's at risk for developing Parkinson disease? Almost everyone; the disease doesn't seem to be selective and affects women and men equally; and while it is generally considered a disease of the elderly that occurs after the age of 65, about 15% of the affected population are diagnosed under the age of 50. Parkinson affect 1 out of every 100 people and there doesn't seem to be any social, ethnic, economic or geographic boundaries either. "Currently, researchers suspect that the cause of Parkinson disease in most individuals reflects a combination of genetic factors and environmental exposures." (National Parkinson Foundation)

Parkinson's isn't easy to diagnose either. There is no blood test or brain scan that definitively points to the condition - doctors diagnose based on the process of elimination and patient symptoms. Other signs of the disease include: a shuffling walk, small cramped handwriting, muffled speech, depression and stiff facial expressions. There are doctors, neurologists, who specialize in the treatment of neurological disorders and of these even more specialized practioners who specifically treat Parkinson disease.

There are treatment options available to ease the symptoms of the disease. Most of the hallmarks of Parkinson disease are caused by the lack of dopamine-producing cells existing or still functioning in the brain, so conventional treatment includes medications that mimic or replace dopamine. This helps to reduce the stiffness, tremors, slow movement and poor balance associated with the condition. Several promising new medicines are being developed and studied to halt the progression of the disease, too.

Surgery can be another option to help ease the symptoms for some Parkinson sufferers - brain surgery can be dangerous so this is most often only considered after treatment with medication seems ineffective.

There is currently no cure for Parkinson disease, but there is support and treatment available; and with researchers working diligently to develop medications to halt the progression of the disease, there is also hope for the future.


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