Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, after Alzheimer’s. It affects some 160,000 people in Spain already more than 6.5 million worldwide. Every April 11, the day of this disease is celebrated, in tribute to James Parkinson, who was born on that date in 1755 and was the first to describe the disease that now bears his name.
The best known of evil is its most visible effect: the agitation and tremors that it causes in the hands, arms and other parts of the body. Of its possible causes, its risk factors and the early signs of the disease, on the other hand, much less is known -in general-.
A substance closely related to Parkinson’s is dopamine. This neurotransmitter is often called the “pleasure hormone”, because the brain secretes it when the person performs actions that make them feel good. It is linked to the reward system, and is activated by drug use, gambling, and also by love.
But dopamine also plays a very important role in the body’s motor function. In fact, the death or degeneration of neurons that produce dopamine is the physiological reason by which evil appears. Unfortunately, science so far could not determine why those neurons wear out or die.
“Without dopamine, the cells that control movement cannot send appropriate messages to the muscles – explains a document of the United States National Library of Medicine-. This makes it difficult to control them. This damage slowly gets worse over time.”
The most widely accepted today is that the disease “could be due to a combination of factors genetic, environmental and those derived from the aging of the organism itself”, points out the Spanish Parkinson Foundation (EFF). That is why the risk factors are grouped according to these three aspects:
- Genetic factors. Between 15% and 25% of people with Parkinson’s have a history of the disease in their family. However, the FEP ensures that in nine out of ten cases it is “sporadic forms, that is, they are not due to a specific genetic alteration.”
- environmental factors. According to the FEP, there are studies that “cite as a risk factor the continued consumption over the years of well water or having been exposed to pesticides and herbicides.” That is why living in a rural environment could increase the risk of suffering from this disease.
- Aging. In most cases – around 70% of the total – Parkinson’s manifests itself at sixty or more years of age. However, it is not a disease exclusive to older adults: 15% of patients are between 45 and 65, and the other 15% are younger than 45.
Early signs of the disease
Parkinson’s does not yet have a cure, although there are different treatments that increase quality of life of the people affected. These treatments are more effective the sooner the problem is diagnosed. Therefore, it is key to pay attention to the possible early signs of the existence of the disease.
The Parkinson’s Foundation, based in the United States, lists ten early warning signs. They are the following:
1. Tremor. As noted, it is the most visible and best known effect. And although it is usually more noticeable on the hands and arms, it also manifests itself on the chin, lips, legs or other parts of the body. And in addition to those forms of agitation, twitching of the limbs can occur.
2. Small print. Sudden changes in handwriting, such as much smaller handwriting or a tendency to crowd words closer together, can also be early signs of the disease. It is true that handwriting is less and less common, but it can be important to maintain it and pay attention to it.
3. Loss of smell. This symptom has become highly associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it can also be caused by other problems. Some are temporary and not serious, like a cold or the flu; others, more complex issues, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
4. Movements when sleeping. There are many pathologies related to sleep. Among them, limb movement disorder, which consists of repetitively moving the arms and legs while sleeping. Something that can even be related to restless legs syndrome. But you have to pay attention, because it could also be a sign of Parkinson’s.
5. Difficulty moving or walking. It is possible that certain movement or displacement problems are due to diseases such as arthritis or a specific injury. But if these possible causes do not exist, muscle stiffness, lack of movement of the arms when walking or pain are often a symptom of something larger.
6. Constipation. This is a fairly common problem and can be caused by a wide variety of factors. But be careful if it appears in combination with other items on this list.
7. Low or hoarse voice. Certain voice changes may also be due to Parkinson’s. There are cases in which the person has the feeling that everyone around him is going deaf, but what has changed is his voice, which is less audible.
8. Lack of facial expression. This characteristic – also called “mask aspect” – makes the person seem serious, sad or in a bad mood all the time. It is almost always others who notice and point out this fact.
9. Dizziness or fainting. Parkinson’s is associated with low blood pressure. This, in turn, can lead to dizziness (for example, when getting up from a chair or bed) and even loss of consciousness.
10. Slouching. Body posture can give an alert of early Parkinson’s: a hunched back or shrugging of the shoulders are also signs to watch out for.
In general, none of these isolated events represent a concrete risk of Parkinson’s. But you should be careful two or more of them occur at the same time.
Other consequences and possible prevention
In addition to the symptoms already mentioned, Parkinson’s can affect the daily life of affected people in other ways. Its potential complications range from depression and other emotional changes to fatigue, sexual dysfunction, chewing and eating difficulties, and cognitive problems.
The treatments -which have had a notable development in recent decades- focus on three main objectives. Firstly, to restore the levels of cerebral dopaminergic activity, which allows relieve symptoms both motor and non-motor.
On the other hand, attempts are made to delay the evolution of cognitive deterioration as much as possible. Ultimately -and this is the third of the objectives- the aim is to “safeguard the autonomy and enhance social and psychological well-being of the patient”. This is indicated in a Article the neurologist Eric Freire, from the General University Hospital of Elche.
Can Parkinson’s be prevented? As the precise causes of the disease are unknown, experts are also unable to point out specific measures for its prevention. Certain studies indicate that the mate and others caffeinated products could reduce the risk of suffering from this disease.
Beyond these indications, the most recommended thing to do to prevent motor and cognitive deterioration associated with neurodegenerative diseases, as explained by neurology expert Tomás González Hernández in an interview with elDiario.es, is “Maintain a healthy life in its different aspects”.
That is: eat a balanced diet, exercise, sleep well, avoid contact with toxins (such as herbicides and pesticides) and keep an active mindespecially through social relations and activities such as reading, music or board games.
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