Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

A Disease That Sneaks Up On You

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By Tom Morrow

(The author is a long-time friend and colleague of this blogger.)

A 19th century malady that is becoming more prevalent in today’s society is Parkinson’s Disease.

PD is thought to occur primarily with the elderly. There are no easy explanations and it can hit the young. Males are more often affected than females at a ratio of around 3 to 2.

When young people like actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammed Ali are afflicted, the age factor sort of goes out the window. Fox was 27 when he was diagnosed. Ali was 38. Older victims such as well-known actor Alan Alda are more commonplace. Singer Linda Ronstadt was 67.

I was 75 when I was diagnosed.

PD is a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects the motor nerves. The symptoms usually emerge slowly, and as the disease worsens, non-motor symptoms become more common. The most obvious early symptoms are tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty with walking and keeping balanced.

By 2015, it was estimated PD affected more than 6 million people and resulted in about 117,400 deaths globally. The average life expectancy following diagnosis is between seven and 15 years.

The cause of PD is unknown but both inherited and environmental factors are believed to play a role. Those with a family member affected by PD are at an increased risk of getting the disease, with certain genes known to be inheritable risk factors. Other risk factors are those who have been exposed to certain pesticides and those who have had head injuries. Cognitive and behavioral problems also may occur with many victims suffering from depression, anxiety and apathy. Dementia can become commonplace in the advanced stages of PD.   

Boxers, such as Ali, and sports figures who have sustained a number of blows to head often develop PD. A lot of football players are victims.

Those suffering with Parkinson’s also can have problems with their sleep and sensory systems. The motor symptoms of the disease result from the dead cells in the mid-brain leading to a dopamine deficit. The cause of this cell death is not very well understood. Diagnosis of typical PD cases is usually based on symptoms when motor skills difficulties are the patient’s chief complaint.

The bad news is that there still is no known cure for PD.

For those of us with PD, treatment can reduce the effects of the symptoms. Initial treatment is done typically with medications such as levodopa or dopamine agonists. As the disease progresses, experience has shown these medications become less effective.

Actor Fox has greatly increased the public awareness of the disease. After diagnosis, Fox embraced his Parkinson’s in television roles, sometimes acting without medication to further illustrate the effects of the condition. He has appeared before Congress without medication to illustrate the effects of the disease. The Michael J. Fox Foundation aims to develop a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Professional cyclist and Olympic medalist Davis Phinney, who was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s at age 40, started the Davis Phinney Foundation in 2004 to support PD research, focusing on quality of life for people with the disease.

While boxer Ali showed signs of PD when he was 38, it was not diagnosed until he was 42. He has been called the “world’s most famous Parkinson’s patient.”

A physician initially assesses PD with a careful medical and neurological history. Focus is put on confirming motor symptoms and supporting tests with clinical diagnostic criteria being discussed by a physician and PD specialist.

Multiple causes often mimic PD, making it look similar to the disease. Stroke, certain medications, and toxins can cause “secondary parkinsonism” and need to be thoroughly and properly assessed. Parkinson-plus syndromes, such as progressive palsy and multiple system atrophy, should be considered and ruled out appropriately due to different treatment and disease progression.

For PD victims losing their motor skills, such as walking and difficulties in keeping balance, swallow your pride and use a walker both indoors and out. The results of a bad fall can be worse than any disease.

Written by Cecil Scaglione

September 9, 2022 at 3:00 am

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