More than 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, and each year 50,000 more individuals are diagnosed with the condition. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, five to 10 percent of the 50,000 are under the age of 50. (The average age for Parkinson’s diagnosis is 60.) These patients have what’s known as “early-onset” or young Parkinson’s disease.

Who is at risk for early-onset Parkinson’s disease?

Early-onset Parkinson’s disease may be hereditary—in some families, the gene for the condition is passed from one generation to another. If one of your relatives has Parkinson’s disease, your risk for developing the condition increases. In fact, almost a quarter of people with Parkinson’s disease have a relative with the condition, too. However, most people diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease (and Parkinson’s disease in general) have no family history or obvious risk factors. Researchers believe a combination of factors—both hereditary and environmental—combine to increase a person’s chance of developing the degenerative disease.

What are the symptoms of early-onset Parkinson’s disease?

Despite being younger when you are diagnosed, you will face the same symptoms as people diagnosed with traditional Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately, many younger people—and their doctors—overlook early-onset Parkinson’s disease because Parkinson’s disease is often thought of as a condition only older adults develop.

The most common symptoms of early-onset Parkinson’s disease can be broken down into motor and non-motor symptoms.

The four most common motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Bradykinesia. Patients with Parkinson’s disease develop slowed movement and eventually lose automatic movement. This symptom is called bradykinesia. Activities that were once easy and effortless for you may become challenging, difficult, or even impossible. The slowed and difficult movement will become worse as the disease progresses.
  • Tremor.  Tremor is often one of the first symptoms people with Parkinson’s disease experience. Parkinson’s disease tremor is most obvious when you are resting and your hand is not in use. In that circumstance, your hand may begin to shake or twitch without your control.
  • Postural instability. Parkinson’s disease interferes with posture, and patients may have a difficult time remaining balanced when walking or standing. You may fall easily as a result.
  • Rigidity. For ordinary muscle movement, one part of a muscle must relax while the opposing muscle tenses. For individuals with Parkinson’s disease, this automatic muscle action ceases to happen easily. Parkinson’s disease also causes rigidity or resistance to movement in your muscles.

The four most common non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Changes in mood. You may feel tired, anxious, angry, or depressed more often and more easily.
  • Cognitive changes. You may experience difficulty recalling information, remembering details, or clearly explaining your thoughts.>
  • Sleep disorders. Excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea, and insomnia are common sleep problems experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Speech changes. You may begin speaking more softly than usual. You may also speak quickly and slur your words. Some patients begin losing voice inflections and speak with a monotone.

What causes early-onset Parkinson’s?

An exact cause for early-onset Parkinson’s disease is not known. (A cause for traditional Parkinson’s disease is not known either.) In both conditions, Parkinson’s disease prevents dopamine, a neurotransmitter, from sending signals to your body to coordinate and control movement. Parkinson’s disease destroys the nerve cells that send the chemical messages to your body, and without those signals, your body is unable to move as it should.

Several factors appear to play a role in who develops the progressive neurological disease and who doesn’t.

  • Genes. People with a family history of Parkinson’s disease are more likely to develop the condition. Researchers have also identified gene mutations and variations that may increase a person’s risk.
  • Environment. Research points to exposure to certain toxins and environmental factors as a small, but possible, cause of Parkinson’s disease.

Is early-onset Parkinson’s disease treated differently than traditional Parkinson’s disease?

There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease or early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Doctors and scientists also do not know how to prevent the condition. Both diseases are treated with the same medicines and treatment options. Younger patients may have fewer health problems that complicate Parkinson’s disease, however, so complications of treatment and side effects may be less severe.

Younger patients may not be able to use certain medications at first. That’s because some of the most effective medicines lose their ability to influence symptoms, and the sooner you begin those medicines, the longer you will have to be without them once they are no longer effective. In both cases, identifying symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and finding effective treatments will help you live a more fulfilling and symptom-free life.