Parkinson’s disease is a condition that affects the brain, resulting in a progressive loss of coordination and movement. It is the most common form of parkinsonism disorders and is sometimes called idiopathic or primary parkinsonism.
In Parkinson’s disease, nerve cells, also called neurons, in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra begin to malfunction or die, a process called neurodegeneration. Some of the neurons are responsible for producing a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, which is passes signals between neurons. It is essential in sending messages from the brain to direct muscle movement and coordination.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, which means symptoms get worse over time. As more dopamine-producing neurons die, the levels of dopamine in the brain decrease until patients are unable to control normal movements. This progression is very slow, and symptoms usually are visible after about 70 to 80 percent of the nerve cells have been lost.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can vary, but the most common identifying symptoms include involuntary tremors, slowed movement (bradykinesia), rigidity or stiffness, and impaired balance. Parkinson’s disease also can cause a range of non-motor or “invisible” symptoms, such as sleep problems, constipation, slurred speech, and mood disorders.
As there is no single definitive diagnostic test for Parkinson’s and many early symptoms are also associated with aging, it can be difficult to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. Most people diagnosed with the disease are older than 60, although early-onset Parkinson’s has been diagnosed at 40 or younger.
The disease is more common in men than in women.
Causes of Parkinson’s
The root cause of Parkinson’s-associated neurodegeneration is currently unknown, although research is ongoing into the disease processes. The disease is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
In rarer types of parkinsonism the cause can be identified. This diagnosis can be referred to as Parkinson’s plus, or atypical parkinsonism.
Parkinson’s itself is not considered fatal, however, the progression of the symptoms can reduce quality of life and contribute to complications such as pneumonia that can be fatal if not treated.
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