What is Parkinson's disease? Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that affects up to 1.5 million Americans. Because it is not contagious and does not have to be reported by physicians, the incidence of the disease is often underestimated.
Parkinson's disease may appear at any age, but it is uncommon in people younger than 30, and the risk of developing it increases with age. It occurs in all parts of the world, and men are affected slightly more often than women are.
Following is a list of the primary symptoms of Parkinson's disease. It is important to note that not all patients experience the full range of symptoms; in fact, most do not.
- Poor balance
- Walking problems
People with Parkinson's disease may also suffer many secondary symptoms. These include depression, sleep disturbances, dizziness, stooped posture, constipation, dementia, and problems with speech, breathing, swallowing, and sexual function. Again, it is important to note that individual patients experience different symptoms.
The actual cause of Parkinson's disease is not known. Although a defective gene was recently found in a few families with extraordinary high incidences of Parkinson's disease, most researchers believe that in the vast majority of cases, genetic factors alone are not responsible for causing the disease. Instead, it is suspected that Parkinson's disease usually results from the combination of a genetic predisposition and an unidentified environmental trigger.
When Parkinson's disease occurs, degenerative changes are found in an area of the brain known as the substantia nigra. This area produces dopamine, a chemical substance that enables people to move normally and smoothly. Parkinson's disease is characterized by a severe shortage of dopamine. It is this deficiency that causes the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's disease can be difficult to diagnose. No single lab test confirms Parkinson's disease, and many symptoms mimic other illnesses. A diagnosis is made through an extensive review of a patient's medical history, coupled with an analysis of results from routine lab tests.