Originally Published: November 10, 2012 9:59 p.m.
If you or someone you know suffers from Parkinson's disease, you are not alone. The disease affects between 500,000 and one million men and women in the United States alone, with some 50,000 new cases diagnosed every year. The average age of onset for the disease is 61, but it can begin even prior to age 40.
Parkinson's disease is caused by the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. It is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time.
The most prominent symptom of Parkinson's disease is trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw or face of the patient. There can be other symptoms as well such as rigidity of the limbs and body or impaired balance, some of which can be even more disabling than the uncontrolled movement. Some with the disease may also suffer depression, anxiety, dementia, difficulty in swallowing and chewing, speech changes, urinary problems or constipation, very oily or very dry skin, excessive sweating, or sleep problems.
Parkinson's disease likely results from a combination of inherited and environmental factors that interact in a complex way to set disease processes in motion. When that happens, dopamine-producing neurons in the brain begin to die over the course of many years. The resulting loss of dopamine affects the area of the brain that controls movement. By the time symptoms begin, some 50 to 80 percent of dopamine neurons have already been lost.
There is still no definitive answer as to what triggers the process. Genetics plays a role, but in the vast majority of cases, no obvious familial link is present. Individuals may inherit a degree of susceptibility to the disease, which only causes Parkinson's disease when other factors are present.
The disease is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States and no currently available treatment will halt or even slow the loss of neurons it causes. There are, however, ways to treat the symptoms. Levodopa can make up for lost dopamine. Other treatments mimic dopamine in the brain, or prolong its action. Brain surgery may be an option later in the course of the disease. With care, support and medication, many have learned to manage their disease and continue to live productive, fulfilling lives.
Prescott resident Alan Richardson has lived with Parkinson's disease for 25 years. He is one of the facilitators for the Prescott Parkinson's Support Group, for which he writes and publishes a regular monthly newsletter. His newsletter, available by mail or through email, chronicles his own experience with Parkinson's and the experiences of others from the group, as well listing upcoming events and speakers.
"There are around 160 people with Parkinson's in the area that we know of," Richardson says, "and there are caregivers and family members, so we have quite a big crowd of people that have an interest in learning about Parkinson's disease."
Richardson also points out that the camaraderie of others who have the disease is of great value. "There is no standard Parkinson's disease. Everybody has a unique experience with it. It may be that they don't have a tremor, but they do have a tendency to fall, or to stumble. Medication doesn't work for everybody. You learn by sharing your experiences with the disease, and by hearing from others."
The Prescott Parkinson's Support Group meets regularly on the third Thursday of every month from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 231 W. Smoketree Lane, Prescott. Anyone seeking to know more about Parkinson's disease is invited to attend or contact Kay Bolander at 778-2242 or Alan Richardson at 442-1380.