Understanding Parkinson's Disease

Though we often hear the term used, many people do not know exactly what Parkinson's disease (PD) is. If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with PD, it can be overwhelming to process this information. Understanding the disease and its progression can help to make this easier.

Parkinson's disease affects dopamine-producing nerve cells and we are still learning how exactly it is caused, though researchers believe it is a combination of age, genetic and environmental factors playing a role. A recent study found nearly 90,000 people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the U.S each year. Some early signs of PD can be: difficulty sleeping, restless legs, loss of smell, a mask-like facial expression and constipation.

It has 4 main symptoms, including:

It can also involve:

Over time, people with PD may experience changes in cognitive function, including attention, memory and abilities to carry out tasks. As PD progresses, some individuals may develop dementia, which affects problem-solving, thinking speed, memory and mood. In certain cases, behaviors can become increasingly difficult both for the person with PD to experience and family members to cope with. If this sounds familiar, read our article talking through some ways of Managing Challenging Behaviors. In some cases, alternative residences such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes can be ideal to help relieve the pressure on both parties and allow for the individual to receive support from experienced caregivers.

Treatments range from medications to lifestyle adjustments to help relieve symptoms, though there is no cure. Research continually uncovers more information to help improve our understanding of PD and there are support groups that can help provide a community and resources to people with Parkinson's disease along with their loved ones and caregivers.

Dr. P. Heir

Sources: Parkinson's Foundation; Parkinson's UK; National Institute on Aging.