What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Affecting an estimated 1 million Americans, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that impacts the ability of the brain to maintain the neurotransmitter essential for movement and regulating mood. PD is most known for its motor symptoms; however, it can eventually contribute to mood issues such as apathy, fatigue, depression, anxiety and hallucinations.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that impacts nerve cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter. In PD, these nerve cells, called alpha-synuclein proteins, break down, impairing the production of dopamine. Dopamine acts as a transmitter for signals from the brain to other parts of the body. By the time motor symptoms of PD become apparent, it is estimated that 70 percent of the cells that produce dopamine have been lost.

It comes on slowly, often noticed as shaking in one hand or on one side of the body. As time progresses, the symptoms significantly increase and become more pronounced and noticeable. While tremor is the most well-known sign of PD, the condition also causes stiffness, slowing of movement, foot dragging, and freezing, in which the individual has trouble continuing forward movement. Activities such as shaving, getting in and out of bed, turning over, using cutlery, dressing oneself, walking and even swallowing can become more difficult and time-consuming.

Who is affected by PD?

The average age of a Parkinson’s diagnosis is 56. Approximately 4 percent of Parkinson’s patients are diagnosed before the age of 50. Young Onset Parkinson’s disease is considered a diagnosis before the age of 40. The disease is twice as likely to affect men than women.

How is Parkinson’s diagnosed?

What is Parkinson's?
Parkinson’s disease is twice as likely to affect men than women.

Disease state is measured through a motor exam using the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), a tool that evaluates factors such as reflexes, tremor, coordination, balance, posture, rigidity, gait, eye movement, mental functioning, mood and social interaction. Brain scans also may be used to assess activity and function of brain regions involved in movement and can help rule out other conditions such as stroke or brain tumor. Scientists continue to gain greater understanding of PD through continued research to develop better treatments and a potential cure for the disease.