Risk Factors for Parkinson's Disease

May 5, 2016

Risk Factors for Parkinson's Disease

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Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that develops gradually. With PD, the neurons in the area of the brain responsible for producing an important brain chemical, dopamine, deteriorate. Dopamine is essential for the communication between the two parts of the brain that are responsible for smooth and balanced muscle movement. When these neurons are destroyed and dopamine is not being produced, the result is a loss in the ability to control your body movements.

While the disease itself is not fatal, the complications from the disease can be very serious. If you recognize the early signs of Parkinson's, it may help to extend your quality of life. There is also no cure for PD. If you develop this disease, your doctor will have a goal of treating your Parkinson's disease symptoms to ensure you maintain a high quality of life as possible.

What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?

In people with PD, their nerve cells (neurons) in the brain that produce dopamine will gradually break down and die. It is not known how these neurons become compromised. Decreased dopamine levels lead to abnormal brain activity resulting in diagnosable signs of Parkinson’s disease.

The cause of Parkinson’s is still unknown, however, research has shown that there are several attributing factors that play a role.

  • Age - Getting older plays an important role in developing Parkinson’s disease. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, there is a two to four percent risk for PD among adults over the age of 60, in contrast with one percent in the general population
  • Gender - For reasons unknown, men are more vulnerable to Parkinson’s. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, men are about one-and-a-half more likely to develop PD than women. The reason for this is not known, but it has been thought that the hormone in women, estrogen, may protect the dopamine neurons somehow.
  • Genetics - Researchers have determined that there are specific genetic mutations that can cause PD, but these are generally rare unless Parkinson’s disease has affected many family members. Certain gene variations do appear to increase the risk of PD, though, that risk is small. Of all cases of Parkinson’s, about 15 to 25 percent of reported having a relative with the disease.
  • Head injury - Studies have shown that people that have had a head injury that knocked them unconscious may be at greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
  • Lewy bodies - Lewy bodies are irregular clumps of protein found in the brain stems of people with Parkinson’s disease. They contain a type of protein that cells are unable to break down. Over time, these masses of Lewy bodies cause the brain to degenerate.
  • Environmental factors - Research has shown that exposure to certain environmental factors or toxins may increase the risk of developing PD later on. Some occupations or job titles have shown a higher incidence of PD, but results have been inconsistent. Many agricultural and industrial workers have been associated with PD across various studies. Workers found to have greater exposure to pesticides or metals have higher rates of Parkinson’s disease than in other occupations. However, specific pesticides or metals causing PD have been inconsistent in studies.
  • Illegal drugs - While not proven, some researchers think that the use of illicit drugs may contribute to the development of PD because many of these drugs target those same dopamine-producing neurons in the brain.
  • Certain medications - It has been found that some of the drugs, or antipsychotics, used to treat conditions like severe paranoia or schizophrenia can cause symptoms that resemble Parkinson’s disease.

Potential Protection against Parkinson’s Disease

Though there is not much known about the risk factors and causes of Parkinson’s disease, researchers have found factors that may potentially reduce the risk of Parkinson’s. Again, there is not enough known about these so they should not be tried until talking to your doctor or primary healthcare physician.

  • Coffee and tea - Caffeine consumption has been shown to lower the risk of PD, especially in men when compared to people who consume just a little caffeine or none at all.
  • Cigarette smoking - Though it is never recommended as a preventative measure for PD, studies have found that people who smoke cigarettes are less likely to develop the disease. However, researchers also want to point out that this may be because there could be an effect of having Parkinson’s that makes a person less likely to smoke, which would skew the data.
  • Exercise - Studies in humans and animals alike have shown that regular physical activity may lower the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Generally speaking, it is never a bad idea to maintain a regular exercise schedule as a senior, always making sure to remain active within your limits. 

Although there is no total cure for Parkinson's disease at the moment, scientists are getting closer to a solution through understanding the symptoms and the physical mechanisms behind the condition. To learn more and get involved in the fight to cure Parkinson's disease, check out the Parkinson's Disease Foundation

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does a doctor know that someone has Parkinson's disease?

If you find that you are suffering from the signs or symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, you will need to visit a neurologist. There are not currently any specific tests to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, but there are ways that your doctor will determine if you have the disease or not.

They will thoroughly examine your medical history and perform a neurological exam to assess your motor functionality and balance. They will use a blood test to rule out other conditions or diseases that could be causing your symptoms. Neurologists can use various imaging test to differentiate between PD and other disorders with similar symptoms. Then, they will enter all of your test results into the United Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale. This tool will help them determine if you have the disease and help monitor the progression of your symptoms.

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My father has just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease but he won't accept it. Why won't he accept that he has this disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a chronic disorder that is going to greatly affect your father for the rest of his life. When someone finds out they have a chronic condition like this, their shock can quickly turn into denial of the disease.

You can help your loved one overcome Parkinson’s disease denial by being supportive. Help them learn everything they can about their condition. Help make sure they are taking medications and following their treatment plan. Try and schedule some time for your father’s physician to sit with them and go over all of their concerns.

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