Parkinson’s disease is a chronic disorder of the nervous system. It affects at least 500,000 people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Approximately 60,000 new cases are reported in the United States each year.
This disease isn’t fatal, but it can cause debilitating symptoms that impact everyday movement and mobility. Hallmark symptoms of this disease include tremors and gait and balance problems. These symptoms develop because the brain’s ability to communicate is damaged.
Researchers aren’t yet certain what causes Parkinson’s. There are several factors that may contribute to the disease.
The Mayo Clinic reports that someone with a close relative (e.g., a parent or sibling) who has Parkinson’s is at an increased risk of developing the disease. It also reports that the risk of developing Parkinson’s is low unless you have several family members with the disease.
How does genetics factor into Parkinson’s in some families? According to Genetics Home Reference, one possible way is through the mutation of genes responsible for producing dopamine and certain proteins essential for brain function.
There’s also some evidence that one’s environment can play a role. Exposure to certain chemicals has been suggested as a possible link to Parkinson’s disease. These include pesticides such as insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. It’s also possible that Agent Orange exposure may be linked to Parkinson’s.
Not everyone exposed to these environmental factors develops Parkinson’s. Some researchers suspect that a combination of genetics and environmental factors cause Parkinson’s.
Lewy bodies are abnormal clumps of proteins found in the brain stem of people with Parkinson’s disease. These clumps contain a protein that cells are unable to break down. They surround cells in the brain. In the process they interrupt the way the brain functions.
Clusters of Lewy bodies cause the brain to degenerate over time. This causes problems with motor coordination in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical that aids in passing messages between different sections of the brain. The cells that produce dopamine are damaged in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Without an adequate supply of dopamine the brain is unable to properly send and receive messages. This disruption affects the body’s ability to coordinate movement. It can cause problems with walking and balance.
Aging also plays a role in Parkinson’s disease. Advanced age is the most significant risk factor for developing Parkinson’s disease.
Scientists believe that brain and dopamine function begin to decline as the body ages. This makes a person more susceptible to Parkinson’s.
Gender also plays a role in Parkinson’s. Men are more susceptible to developing Parkinson’s than women.
Some research suggests that certain occupations may put a person at greater risk for developing Parkinson’s. In particular, Parkinson’s disease may be more likely for people who have jobs in welding, agriculture, and industrial work. This may be because individuals in these occupations are exposed to toxic chemicals. However, study results have been inconsistent and more research needs to be done.
We have some clues as to why Parkinson’s disease develops, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know. Early detection and treatment are key in minimizing symptoms of Parkinson’s.
There are treatments that help with Parkinson’s symptoms, but currently there is no cure. More research is needed to identify the exact role that genetics and environment play in causing this disease.