Old Age or Parkinson’s? It Can Be Tough to Sort Out

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by Dr. C |

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“How can I tell if it’s Parkinson’s and not just me getting older?” This question was posed by an audience member during a presentation about Parkinson’s disease given at a local support group meeting.

I’m not an expert on gerontology (the science of getting older). I was diagnosed at 65, the average age at which most Parkinson’s patients receive their diagnosis.

The U.S. National Institute on Aging notes that, “One clear risk [for Parkinson’s] is age: Although most people with Parkinson’s first develop the disease after age 60, about 5% to 10% experience onset before the age of 50.” Both symptoms onset and diagnosis of Parkinson’s often overlap with getting older.

Getting a proper diagnosis is key since many of us, including myself, feel that Parkinson’s was pounding on the door much earlier. But it’s tough to sort through all the symptoms that present during these years and determine which are due to aging and which are due to Parkinson’s. Is it my elder body circling down the drain, or is Parkinson’s causing some of the crossed signals?

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The aging versus Parkinson’s question left a nagging feeling in my journalistic consciousness. Now, years later, the answers are starting to emerge thanks to new understanding of the disease. More people are also embracing aging and Parkinson’s, rather than succumbing to pessimism and giving up.

Embrace Aging: Conquer Your Fears and Enjoy Added Years” by Jeannette Guerrasio, MD, is my go-to reference for general aging issues. The author’s approach is similar to mine: Give someone the tools, information, and the support relationship they need to live well.

Guerrasio’s book empowers people to take charge of their own health in collaboration with a medical provider, using traditional or alternative medicine. Patients must accept that we need useful information about what may be going on in our bodies (pending a formal diagnosis) and what we can do to personally mitigate the outcome or even prevent the problem in the first place. Self-awareness and self-management are key. Interspersed throughout the book are self-management tips in the “What You Can Do for Yourself” sections.

I really like having this book available for some of my medical questions. It gives me a nice owner’s manual view of what might be going on in my aging body, and it provides discussion topics and questions I can ask my medical providers. No one can cheat death, but we can act to limit suffering. “Embrace Aging” is a treasure trove helping us find our way.

Reading the list of medical problems described in “Embrace Aging,” it’s hard not to miss the overlap with the prominent symptoms associated with Parkinson’s.

For example, take the sleep problems that arise when one ages. When you have Parkinson’s, these sleep problems seem to manifest in the extreme. I experience episodes of thrashing and gnashing, which don’t seem as prevalent among those experiencing aging-related sleep issues.

Another example is fatigue. As we age, we don’t have the same energy levels and can’t bounce back as quickly from increased exertion. Fatigue is a big problem in Parkinson’s and is more than a simple exaggeration of just “feeling tired.” Parkinson’s fatigue is disabling.

If one starts with the premise that Parkinson’s is a brain disease involving dopamine neuron death, then the nerve death translates into well-known physical and mental conditions often exacerbated in the elderly, such as sleep and fatigue problems. One reason why getting diagnosed early can be so difficult is that we can’t sort out Parkinson’s from other stuff. Yet early diagnosis is so important for helping people use the Parkinson’s self-management toolkit as soon as possible. It’s a new and improved way of living with the illness.

The focus of my writing on Parkinson’s has been to clearly paint this new picture of the disease. The new way of viewing Parkinson’s can be found in my book “Possibilities with Parkinson’s: A Fresh Look” and expanded in my Parkinson’s News Today columns.

Perhaps, instead of asking, “What’s the difference between aging and Parkinson’s?” we should really be asking, “What’s the best way to improve my quality of life?”

I have offered my stories of self-discovery, not as absolute proof, but as reason for hope. My neurologist and I recently reviewed my “state of the state” and he agreed that Parkinson’s self-management techniques can go a long way to living a quality life.

Mrs. Dr. C says the definition of a classic is when the warranty runs out and you can’t find parts, but the car gets you where you want to go and still looks good. That pretty much defines me with Parkinson’s and aging.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


Beth T Browne avatar

Beth T Browne

I was diagnosed at 81, but because I had sleep issues he year before, I probably had it then.

Did a DNA through the Michael J Fox Fdn when offered to me. They found no history. So, guess I got it due to old age.

I ama 29 yr breast cancer survivor. I have been single and on my own since 1980. Not be choice. My husband of 20 yrs confessed he has been gay since before our marriage. Yet, he married me, which he felt he needed to do based on his family never accepting him as being gay. Back in the 50’s, gay was not heard of. It was a difficult time.

I moved four years go up the road 60 miles to where my daughter lives, as my health and some other issues were reason I needed a change. Leaving my home of 51 yrs was hard, but I live in a very nice 55+ apartment building, with nice amenities. I still drive, but not much, just to the grocery store, doctor appointments, etc. I still cook, go to an exercise class two times a week, try and use the treadmill and am on my IPad often. I am not depressed, although I have a lot of things wrong with my body. Just trying to live as long as I can with the hopes of meeting my first new grandchild, a boy, who lives in Washington state. I do have some short term memory issues that started this year. I don’t know if it is old age, or the Parkinson;s.

Mike avatar


Thank you C for asking the Question that we all ask Parkinson’s or old age. It really makes no difference. I must try and live my best life. Your columns help me with that. The ABC’s have become a mainstay for me.
Movement is so important. I have added Qui Gong to me exercise routine. It is a Gentler form of stretching
that combined with accupuncture has provided me with an added dimension. As a bonus they seem to improve my mood. Most important is my own consistency. Also Melatonin has helped me to find consistent rest. Rest is so important. Things change with age but that doesn’t mean they must get worse. Thanks for the reminder Dr. C. Blessings, Mike


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