Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that affects mobility and mental ability. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, you may be wondering about life expectancy.

According to some research, on average, people with Parkinson’s can expect to live almost as long as those who don’t have the condition.

While the disease itself isn’t fatal, related complications can reduce life expectancy by 1 to 2 years.

A small 2018 study suggests the survival rate of people with Parkinson’s is highly dependent on the type of parkinsonian disorder they have.

Patients with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease (meaning the disease has no cause) and normal cognitive function appear to have a mostly normal life expectancy. People with atypical Parkinsonism — including dementia with Lewy bodies (LBD), progressive supranuclear palsy, and multiple system atrophy — have increased mortality compared to the general population.

There’s also a correlation between mortality rate and the existence of parkinsonian symptoms (except for tremors) and olfactory dysfunction, or problems related to your sense of smell.

Gender could also play a role in mortality. Multiple studies suggest a higher mortality rate among those assigned female at birth.

Parkinson’s disease is classified by stages, ranging from 1 to 5. Stage 5 is the most advanced. Advanced stages may increase the risk of health complications that can reduce lifespan.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s are gradual and sometimes unnoticeable in the early stages of the disease. They may include:

  • tremors
  • loss of balance
  • slowing of movements
  • spontaneous, uncontrollable movements

Symptoms in later stages of Parkinson’s may include:

  • falling more frequently
  • trouble dressing and eating
  • severe stiffness in legs making it impossible to stand or walk
  • hallucinations or delusions
  • cognitive changes (problems with planning, language, attention, memory)
  • dementia
  • lightheadedness
  • mood disorders
  • loss of sense of smell or taste
  • vision problems
  • sleep disorders
  • sexual problems

Your risk of falling increases as Parkinson’s progresses to stages 3, 4, and 5, and motor balance worsens.

A 2016 study suggests that people with Parkinson’s are about three times more likely to fall than the general population, and serious falls can result in concussions and broken bones. In rare cases, serious falls can be fatal.

Pneumonia, particularly aspiration pneumonia, is the leading cause of death for people with Parkinson’s, accounting for 70 percent of Parkinson’s deaths.

Aspiration pneumonia happens when you inhale food, stomach acid, or saliva into your lungs. As Parkinson’s progresses, swallowing can become more difficult, causing food and liquid to enter the lungs.

Parkinson’s disease cannot be cured, but medications, supportive treatments, lifestyle changes, and even surgery can help manage your symptoms, particularly when started early.

Stage 1

Early treatment of Parkinson’s typically includes physical therapy and regular exercise to help improve your balance, strength, and flexibility. In physical therapy, a physiotherapist will work with you to relieve muscle stiffness and joint pain through movement and exercise, with the goal of improving your walking and flexibility.

Making dietary changes can also help improve early Parkinson’s symptoms.

For example, increasing the amount of fiber in your diet and drinking lots of water can help reduce constipation. Increasing the amount of salt in your diet and eating lots of small, frequent meals can help you avoid the dizziness that can accompany low blood pressure.

In early Parkinson’s, your doctor might prescribe medications known as dopamine agonists, which can provide short-term relief from symptoms and may delay the appearance and severity of motor-skill complications as the disease progresses. Examples of this medication include amantadine (Gocovri) and Ropinirole (Requip).

Stage 2

If you’re in this stage of Parkinson’s, you may have trouble swallowing (dysphagia) and problems with your speech. A speech-language pathologist can provide exercises to help you with speaking and swallowing and provide assistive technology to help you communicate.

You may also benefit from working with an occupational therapist who can help you come up with practical solutions to problems you encounter in your everyday life, such as difficulty getting dressed or showering.

Your doctor may prescribe medications to help treat symptoms such as tremors and problems with movement. Options include:

  • Carbidopa-levodopa (Sinemet, Rytary, Duopa): This medication, known as a dopamine precursor, is the most potent and effective medication for Parkinson’s. Levodopa is absorbed by nerve cells in your brain and turned into the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps replace the dopamine lost to Parkinson’s. It is usually taken as a liquid or tablet and taken alongside other medications like benserazide or carbidopa that reduce the side effects of levodopa and prevent it from being broken down in the bloodstream before it gets to the brain.
  • Dopamine agonists: These drugs mimic dopamine’s effects in the brain, helping relieve Parkinson’s symptoms. Their effects are similar to levodopa but milder, and they can be taken less frequently than levodopa. Options include pramipexole (Mirapex), ropinirole (Requip), and rotigotine (Neupro).
  • MAO-B Inhibitors: These drugs stop the breakdown of dopamine in the brain and include rasagiline (Azilect), safinamide (Xadago), and selegiline (Eldepryl).
  • Other drugs: Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors are often prescribed to people in later stages of Parkinson’s disease and help prevent levodopa from being broken down in the body. Anticholinergics and Amantadine (Gocovri) can prevent tremors and treat movement disorders caused by Parkinson’s.

You may want to use complementary therapies in all stages of Parkinson’s to improve well-being and help manage stress. These include:

  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • meditation
  • massage
  • music therapy
  • art therapy

Stage 3

Treatments and therapies used in early stages of Parkinson’s may still be used in stage 3. These treatments include:

  • exercise
  • physical therapy
  • a balanced diet
  • speech-language therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • medications
  • alternative therapies

Stages 4 and 5

Treatments often become less effective in the most advanced stages of Parkinson’s. As the disease progresses, your doctor might switch up how your medication is delivered to make it more potent.

For example, a patient taking dopamine agonist tablets may be switched to Apomorphine, a form of dopamine agonist injected under the skin or administered through a continuous infusion using a small pump carried on your person.

If you’re on levodopa drugs, your doctor may switch you to duodopa, a type of levodopa in the form of a gel that is continuously pumped into your gut through a tube inserted into your abdomen.

In late stages of Parkinson’s, you may undergo surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves implanting a pulse generator, similar to a pacemaker, into your chest wall.

The pulse generator is then connected to fine wires placed under the skin and inserted into specific areas of the brain where electrical currents from the generator stimulate areas of the brain affected by Parkinson’s. While surgery can’t cure Parkinson’s, it can ease symptoms for some patients.

Parkinson’s and falls

Falls are a common secondary symptom of Parkinson’s disease. The risk of falling starts increasing in stage 3 and is greater in stages 4 and 5.

In these stages, you may not be able to stand or walk on your own.

You’re also prone to broken bones and concussions, and severe falls can be dangerous. A serious fall can reduce your life expectancy due to complications from the fall.

Age

Age is another factor in the diagnosis and outlook for Parkinson’s disease. Most people will be diagnosed after age 70.

Age can also make you more prone to falls and certain diseases even without Parkinson’s disease. Such risks can increase for older adults with Parkinson’s.

Gender

People assigned female at birth have a reduced risk of getting Parkinson’s. People assigned male at birth are 50 percent more likely than those assigned female at birth to develop the disease. Researchers have not found the exact reasons for this.

However, people assigned female at birth with Parkinson’s may have a faster progression and reduced longevity. Symptoms in people assigned female at birth may be different from symptoms in people assigned male at birth.

In important to note that age can play a factor regardless of gender. Patients assigned female at birth and who are over age 60 may not fare as well as younger people of the same biological sex diagnosed with the disease.

Access to treatment

Life expectancy has increased significantly due to advances in treatment.

Medications, as well as physical and occupational therapy, are especially helpful in the earliest stages of the disease. These treatments can improve a person’s quality of life.

Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease, meaning one does not die from it. Early detection is the key to helping reduce complications that can shorten life expectancy.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may have Parkinson’s disease, see your doctor right away.