COLUMN: Building awareness for Parkinson's Disease

— Parkinson's disease is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects one in 100 people over age 60. While the average age at onset is 60, people have been diagnosed as young as 18. There is no objective test, or biomarker, for Parkinson's disease, so the rate of misdiagnosis can be relatively high.

Parkinson's disease was first characterized by an English doctor, James Parkinson, in 1817. According to the National Institute of Health, Parkinson's Disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that results from the loss of cells in various parts of the brain including a region called the substantia nigra. The substantia nigra cells produce dopamine, a chemical messenger responsible for transmitting signals within the brain that allow for coordination of movement. Loss of dopamine causes neurons to fire without normal control, leaving patients less able to direct or control their movement. Parkinson's disease is one of several diseases categorized by clinicians as movement disorders.

Symptoms include tremor, rigidity, extreme slowness of movement and impaired balance. Swallowing and speaking difficulties are also common, as are several non-motor symptoms that seriously affect quality of life. Parkinson's disease belongs to a group of conditions called movement disorders. The four main symptoms are tremor or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw or head; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; bradykinesia or slowness of movement; and postural instability or impaired balance. These symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen with time. As they become more pronounced, patients may have difficulty walking, talking or completing other simple tasks. Not everyone with one or more of these symptoms has Parkinson's Disease, as the symptoms sometimes appear in other diseases as well, which is why it's important to consult your doctor.

Parkinson's is both chronic, meaning it persists over a long period of time, and progressive, meaning its symptoms grow worse over time. It is not contagious. Although some Parkinson's Disease cases appear to be hereditary, and a few can be traced to specific genetic mutations, most cases are sporadic — that is, the disease does not seem to run in families. Many researchers now believe that Parkinson's Disease results from a combination of genetics and exposure to one or more environmental factors that trigger the disease.

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