Parkinson’s is a progressive disease of the central nervous system. The condition is caused by a loss of cells in the area of the brain that produces dopamine. According to the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF), most people with the condition are diagnosed in their early 60s. People diagnosed before age 50 have early onset Parkinson’s. Two percent of the approximately 1 million people in the United States with the condition are under age 40. That number may be higher since the disease is underdiagnosed in younger people.
Symptoms vary from person to person and may include:
- slowed movement
- rigid muscles
- cognitive issues
- stooped posture
- balance problems
- sleep issues (including sleeping too much during the day or too little at night)
- loss of unconscious movements such as blinking, smiling, or arm swinging
- speech problems
- difficulty handwriting
People with early onset Parkinson’s may have the same symptoms as older people with the condition. However, there are some differences. According to research published in Parkinsonism & Related Disorders, those with early onset are more likely to have a family history of the disease. Tremor and motor symptoms are common first symptoms in patients of all ages. Nonmotor symptoms often happen first in younger patients.
It’s unclear exactly what causes Parkinson’s at any age. It may be genetic factors, environmental factors, or a combination. The condition occurs when cells are lost in the part of the brain that produces dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for sending brain signals that control movement.
Certain genes are associated with early onset Parkinson’s. According to NPF, studies show 65 percent of people with onset under age 20, and 32 percent of people with onset between 20 and 30, have a genetic mutation.
Environmental causes of the condition may include exposure to chemical toxins such as certain insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs recognizes Parkinson’s as a disease caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Agent Orange is a synthetic chemical herbicide used to spray vegetation and trees during the Vietnam War.
You may be at a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s if:
- you are a man
- you live in an area where certain organic or industrial pollutants exist
- your job exposes you to toxic chemicals such as manganese or lead
- you have had a traumatic head injury
- you have been exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides
- your job exposes you to chemical solvents or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
There is no single test to detect Parkinson’s. A diagnosis may be difficult and take a while. The condition is usually diagnosed by a neurologist based on a review of your symptoms and a physical exam.
A DaTscan to visualize your brain’s dopamine system may help confirm diagnosis. Blood tests, and other imaging tests such as MRI, ultrasound, and PET scan do not diagnose Parkinson’s. However, they may be used to rule out other conditions.
Parkinson’s treatment aims to slow the disease’s progression. Medication treatment options may include:
- Levodopa, which is converted to dopamine in the brain. Early onset patients may experience more negative side effects, such as involuntary movements.
- Dopamine antagonists that mimic natural dopamine in the brain and are often used by early onset patients who do not want to use Levodopa.
- MAO-B inhibitors to help reduce the breakdown of dopamine in the brain.
- Catechol-O-methyltransferase inhibitors to help extend Levodopa’s effects on the brain.
- Anticholinergics to help reduce tremors.
- Amantadine may be used in early onset patients with mild symptoms to improve muscle control and relieve stiffness.
Deep brain stimulation is a surgical procedure in which electrodes are placed in specific areas of the brain. They are connected to a generator that is programmed to send electrical pulses to your brain. The procedure is considered a good option for early onset patients since they are less likely to have other diseases that may cause complications.
Caring for a loved one with early onset Parkinson’s can be difficult, and even overwhelming at times. If you’re a caregiver of someone with the condition, it’s important to remember your own emotional and physical health. Not only are you dealing with a difficult diagnosis, but with increased responsibilities. Burnout is common in caregivers, so make sure you’re checking in with your own needs.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation Center for Parkinson’s Research recommends these tips for caregivers:
- Join a support group: Participating in a support group offers you an outlet for your fears, concerns, and frustrations. You may also learn about new medications, research, and coping tips.
- Expand your medical team: Add as many experts to your healthcare team as you need for support, such as therapists, nutritionists, and movement specialists.
- Stay organized: Maintain a calendar to track doctor appointments, medication refills, and your own obligations.
- Stay informed: Educate yourself so you know what to expect. This helps you plan ahead so you’re not caught off guard by new symptoms.
- Watch for depression: Stay closely tuned to your moods. Get help at the first signs of depression such as angry outbursts, appetite changes, sleep problems, anxiety, agitation, and cognitive problems.
- Don’t overlook your own needs: You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly (even if it’s just taking a walk), and figure out what helps you de-stress. You may enjoy journaling, meditation, or yoga. Identify family members or friends who will step in when you need a break.
There is no conclusive way to prevent Parkinson’s at any age. There are steps you can take that may help reduce your risk:
A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that caffeine helps restore early motor and nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson’s.
A meta-analysis published in the American Academy of Neurology determined that anti-inflammatory drugs known as NSAIDs may help prevent Parkinson’s.
Many people with Parkinson’s do not get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D supplementation may help reduce your risk.
Exercise improves muscle stiffness, mobility, and depression in Parkinson patients. It may also help reduce the risk of getting the disease.
Early onset Parkinson’s is a serious chronic disease. Yet the lifespan for people with the condition is that of the general population. The disease progresses differently for each person.
Medications and lifestyle changes often relieve symptoms. They may also slow the disease’s progression. Parkinson’s research is ongoing. There is hope that more effective medications will be developed, and that there will ultimately be a cure.