Parkinson’s Awareness Week kickstarts on World Parkinson’s Day – Sunday, 11th April 2021. As there is no reported cure for Parkinson’s, this is an annual opportunity to raise awareness of the disease for our good and those around us.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominantly dopamine-producing (“dopaminergic”) neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra.
Parkinson’s symptoms usually begin gradually and get worse over time. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking. They may also have mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, memory difficulties, and fatigue.
Both men and women can have Parkinson’s disease. However, the disease affects about 50 percent more men than women.
One clear risk factor for Parkinson’s is age. Although most people with Parkinson’s first develop the disease at about age 60, about 5 to 10 percent of people with Parkinson’s have “early-onset” disease, which begins before the age of 50. Early-onset forms of Parkinson’s are often, but not always, inherited, and some forms have been linked to specific gene mutations.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease occurs when nerve cells, or neurons, in an area of the brain that controls movement become impaired and/or die.
Normally, these neurons produce an important brain chemical known as dopamine. When the neurons die or become impaired, they produce less dopamine, which causes the movement problems of Parkinson’s.
Scientists still do not know what causes cells that produce dopamine to die.
Symptoms generally develop slowly over years. The progression of symptoms is often a bit different from one person to another due to the diversity of the disease. Since delving into the details of Parkinson’s disease (PD) is extensive, we have outlined the risks associated with the onset of PD and the symptoms that could lead up to PD affecting you.
Most experts agree that PD is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors (chemicals, toxins, head trauma). The interactions between genes and the environment can be quite complex. Some environmental exposures may lower the risk of PD, while others may increase it.
Similarly, some people may have a genetic makeup that makes them more vulnerable to the effects of toxic substances than others. Researchers believe that a combination of factors may trigger biological changes that ultimately lead to Parkinson’s.
Environmental Risk Factors
Scientists are working to better understand the broad range of environmental exposures linked to Parkinson’s disease (PD). There is no conclusive evidence that the following will give you PD, but they have shown up in many cases:
1. Head Injury
Traumatic brain injury — injury that results in alteration in level of consciousness — has been associated with an increased risk of developing PD years after the injury; however, the mechanisms underlying this are unclear.
2. Area of Residence
There are differences in the geographic distribution of PD. Living in a rural area, well-water use, exposure to pesticides, and heavy metals may serve as a risk factor for developing PD.
Certain occupational categories or job titles have been associated with a higher incidence of PD, but results have been inconsistent and there is no conclusive evidence that a certain occupation could lead to PD.
4. Exposure to Metals
Occupational exposures to various metals have been suggested to be related to the development of PD. But long-term exposure to metals is not easily measured and the results of studies measuring PD risk and specific metals have been inconsistent.
5. Solvents and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs):
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a solvent used in many industries and is the most common organic contaminant in groundwater. Exposure to TCE was found to be associated with PD among workers whose factory jobs resulted in long-term exposure. PCBs have been found in relatively high concentrations in the brains of people who had PD. Occupational exposure to PCBs has been associated with greater risk of Parkinson’s in women, but not in men.
6. Pesticide and Herbicide Exposure
A strong link has been shown between PD and exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Further studies are needed to identify the specific chemicals responsible for this association.
We need more Parkinson’s-specific research to better understand what causes PD and to work to prevent it and help eliminate the risk of getting the disease, when it comes to all environmental risk factors ― and whether genetics can cause an increased risk in developing Parkinson’s.
Other Risk Factors
Age: Largest risk factor for developing PD. About one percent of people over age 60 have PD.
Gender: PD is more common in men than in women.
Potential Protective Factors That May Reduce Your Risk of PD
Scientists have also found certain factors that may reduce the risk of developing PD. As with risk factors, not enough is known about these and they should not be tried without the counsel of a doctor.
1. Caffeine – Consumption of caffeine in coffee or tea may lower risk of developing PD.
2. Uric acid or urate – This chemical occurs naturally in blood. High levels, associated with diets high in certain foods, like meats, can cause gout and kidney stones. However, researchers have found that men with uric acid levels in the high end of the normal range have a lower incidence of PD, though a similar effect was not observed in women.
3. Anti-inflammatory Drugs – Several studies have shown that people who regularly take anti-inflammatory drugs have a lower risk of PD.
4. Smoking – Many studies have associated cigarette smoking with a decreased risk of PD perhaps due to the protective factor of nicotine.
5. Cholesterol Medication – Some studies have suggested that the use of statins — drugs used to lower cholesterol levels — is associated with reduced PD risk.
6. Vitamin D – It has been suggested that those with higher vitamin D levels were at lower risk of developing PD, however additional studies are needed to support this.
7. Exercise – Increased physical activity early in life has been associated with a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s later in life.
We will take a look at some symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease in the next article.
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