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Parkinson’s Disease: A Basic Understanding

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Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the brain that progresses gradually and affects motor function. It occurs most often in those aged 60 or older, and more often in men than in women. It may begin with slight tremors of the hand or fingers, stiffness of movement, an inability to make normal facial expressions, or a mild slurring of speech. Some people mistake these early symptoms for normal aging. It is common for symptoms to start on just one side of the body and progress gradually over time, eventually making it difficult to do simple tasks such as walking, writing, and driving. Some people have trouble with balance, and others find that they cannot move as fast as they used to, or that they move more awkwardly.

Parkinson’s disease cannot be cured, but many of its symptoms do respond well to medication, so early diagnosis is key. Exercise, speech therapy, physical therapy, and medication can all help control and alleviate symptoms such as tremors, muscle rigidity, fatigue, cramps, and anxiety.

Doctors do not currently know what causes Parkinson’s disease, but it seems to be the result of neuron damage in the brain which leads to a decrease in dopamine, a chemical that facilitates normal body movement. There is no single test used to diagnosis Parkinson’s disease. For those experiencing symptoms, a diagnosis is made based on a comprehensive examination, along with assessment of symptoms. Your loved one’s doctor may need to evaluate symptoms over a period of time, so don’t be surprised if a diagnosis does not occur at the first appointment.

If your loved one has received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, there is plenty you can do to help them feel their best. Having a good medical team is key, and doctors, neurologist, physical and occupational therapists, dieticians, and speech and language pathologists should all play a role in care. If your loved one is living on their own, you may be responsible for setting up this team; ask your parent’s doctor for a referral to a Parkinson’s specialist who can help you do this.

In addition to a good care team, there are things you can do to help make everyday life at home easier for your loved one. Encourage them to eat a high-fiber diet, as Parkinson’s can often cause a sluggish digestive tract. Exercise will improve strength and flexibility; walking, swimming, and yoga or stretching are especially helpful. If their condition makes exercise difficult, work with a physical therapist to come up with a modified fitness routine. A physical therapist can also coach your loved one through everyday motions that may have become difficult, such as rising from a chair or picking up objects. Be on the lookout for symptoms of depression, which is common among those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

While a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease may feel scary, it is important to note that everyone experiences the disease differently, and a diagnosis does not mean your loved one can’t continue to lead a relatively normal life. Many patients respond well to medication and other interventions and are able to continue their normal activities. If the disease progresses to the point where daily tasks such as bathing and eating are impaired, assisted living arrangements may be desirable to ensure access to comprehensive daily care, help you avoid caregiver burnout, and prolong your loved one’s quality of life. A good medical team can help you and your parent through this process.

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