Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects voluntary movement. It occurs when a group of cells in an area of the brain that produces dopamine begin to malfunction and die. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that sends information to the parts of the brain that control movement and coordination. Without the right amount of dopamine, messages from the brain telling the body how and when to move are disrupted, leaving a person incapable of initiating and controlling movements in a normal way.
About 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year. Because symptoms develop slowly, often starting with a barely noticeable tremor in one hand, it often takes years for a diagnosis to be reached. While tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson's, the disorder may also cause a slowing or freezing of movement, stiffness in the limbs and trunk, postural instability and decreased coordination. Along with motor impairment, speech may become slurred. As with neuromuscular disorders, Parkinson's symptoms tend to worsen as the disease progresses.
Who Is at Risk?
Parkinson's affects both men and women across all social, economic and geographic boundaries. A more predictable risk factor in the onset of Parkinson's is age. Although a small percentage of individuals develop symptoms well before the age of 50, generally symptoms begin to develop well after middle age.
There is still a lot of research needed to understand Parkinson's, but what doctors do know is that it is not considered to be a directly inherited condition and it is not contagious. Many researchers today believe that Parkinson's is may be caused by a combination of environmental toxins, genetic factors, and a physical predisposition to the disease.
Although there is no cure for Parkinson's, symptoms of the disease may be managed through medication and sometimes surgical intervention.