Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder that affects and eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, which is needed to regulate movement, memory, sleep and other important functions.
Named after the English doctor James Parkinson who first wrote about the disease in 1817, it typically develops gradually, often starting with barely noticeable hand or face tremors, and worsening over years to include muscle rigidity, slow movement and impaired balance, coordination, walking, speech and swallowing. In some cases, patients experience hallucinations, which is the main reason some people with Parkinson’s are placed into nursing homes.
Although there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, many of its symptoms can be treated and at least partly alleviated with medication, surgery or exercise.
Nearly 1 million Americans are living with Parkinson’s, which is also thought to affect as many as7 million people worldwide. Although it is usually diagnosed in people 60 and older, some patients as young as 20 develop early onset Parkinson’s. Notable people who have suffered from the disease include actor Michael J. Fox and professional boxer Muhammad Ali.
It’s still not clear what causes Parkinson’s, although the disease has been associated with head injuries and environmental factors such as pesticide exposure or drinking well water. Scientists are making encouraging progress in understanding how the disease works, however, and recent research suggests it may be linked to misfolded molecules of alpha-synuclein, a naturally occurring protein that accumulates in the brain in lumps called Lewy bodies that develop inside some nerve cells.
Parkinson’s affects different people in different ways. But mild tremors are the first symptom that most people notice, often starting when they are in their 50s or 60s. Other early indicators can include a loss of smell, stooped posture, rigid muscles in the arms, legs, neck or other parts of the body, as well as changes in walking, talking or handwriting.
Dementia, including confusion and memory loss, is another common symptom of later-stage Parkinson’s disease.
Several medications are widely used in treating Parkinson’s disease and have been shown to produce significant improvement in many patients’ symptoms, although those benefits usually decrease over time.
Commonly prescribed medications include:
Carbidopa-Levodopa – The most effective Parkinson’s medication developed thus far, this combination of drugs increases dopamine levels in the brain while lessening side effects such as nausea. Its benefits tend to decrease over the years, however, while involuntary movements, or dyskinesia, is a common later-stage side effect of larger doses.
Dopamine agonists – Though less effective than levodopa, this class of drugs lasts longer while mimicking the effects of dopamine. Side effects can include hallucinations, sleepiness and compulsive behavior.
MAO-B inhibitors – These help prevent the breakdown of brain dopamine by inhibiting the monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B) enzyme, which metabolizes dopamine in the brain. Side effects can include hallucinations and potentially serious interactions with anti-depressants and other drugs.
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) – Typically used in advanced stages of Parkinson’s, this technique implants electrodes into the brain to stimulate parts of the brain that can reduce or halt tremors and other involuntary movements.
Carlton Senior Living provides personal care, on-site nursing and mobility assistance for residents living with Parkinson’s disease and other neuromuscular conditions. We also provide our staff with Advanced Caregiver Training, which includes additional training on how to care for residents with Parkinson’s and other conditions that frequently affect the elderly.