What is Parkinson’s disease?

Elderly gentlemen with parkinson's disease

Parkinson’s disease occurs when areas of the brain in charge of controlling the body’s movements no longer work properly. These areas produce a special chemical called dopamine which helps to coordinate all of our movements. It allows us to walk, run, jump, or stand up in a smooth and coordinated fashion. In Parkinson’s, these areas become damaged which causes a shortage of dopamine. As a result, our movements become slow, difficult, and uncoordinated.

Parkinson’s disease develops gradually and may start with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. It is progressive, which means it gets worse over time but usually this happens over many years. As time passes, the symptoms of Parkinson’s may develop into symptoms like

  • muscle stiffness,
  • muscle rigidity,
  • slowing of movement, and even
  • slurred speech.

Causes and risk factors:

The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is still unknown. But researchers have found several factors that may make some people more susceptible. These include1:

  • Age – Parkinson’s is usually seen in adults that are middle aged or older. People usually develop the disease around age 60 or older.
  • Family history – Having a close relative with Parkinson’s  increases the chances of developing the disease.
  • Gender – Men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women.
  • Exposure to toxins – Ongoing exposure to herbicides and pesticides may put you at a slightly increased risk.
  • Your genes – Researchers have identified specific genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease, but these are uncommon except in rare cases.


Parkinson’s symptoms and signs vary from person to person and there are many different symptoms. The most common symptoms are1:

Tremors – A tremor, or shaking, usually seen in the hand or fingers.

Slowing of movement – A reduction in your ability to move around and a slowing of your movement. For example, your steps may become shorter when you walk, or you may find it difficult to get out of a chair.

Rigidity and muscle stiffness – Muscles may feel quite rigid and stiff when moving around.

Problems with posture and balance – Your posture may become stooped, or you may have balance problems.

Tests and diagnosis

No specific test exists to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis is usually made by your doctor after they take a full medical history and do a physical exam. On occasion, a blood test or brain scan may occur to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.


Although Parkinson’s disease has no cure, there are a number of things that can help control the symptoms.

Medications – Medications can help patients manage problems with walking, movement, and tremors. These medications work by acting as a substitute for dopamine.

Healthy eating – There is no food or specific combination of foods that has been shown to cure Parkinson’s disease. However, some foods may help ease some of the symptoms. For example, eating foods high in fiber and drinking an adequate amount of fluids can help prevent constipation that is common in Parkinson’s disease.

A balanced diet also provides nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, that may be beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease. For those who are unable to get all their daily recommended minerals and nutrients, supplements are a great way to do this.

Exercise and physiotherapy– Exercising can increase your muscle strength, flexibility, and balance. Things such as walking, aerobics, or gardening can also improve your well-being and reduce depression or anxiety. Some doctors may also recommend seeing a physiotherapist to design an exercise program that works for you.

How will Parkinson’s disease affect your life?

Finding out that you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s is a difficult and life changing event. Understandably, people go through a wide range of emotions, but it may help to keep a few things in mind2:

  • Parkinson’s usually progresses slowly. Some people live for many years with only minor symptoms and many people are able to keep working for years. As the disease gets worse, you may need to change how you work.
  • It is important to take an active role in your healthcare. Find a doctor you trust and can work with.
  • Depression is common in people who have Parkinson’s. If you feel sad or hopeless, talk to your doctor or see a counselor. It can make a big difference to know that you’re not alone. Ask your doctor about Parkinson’s support groups in your area, or look for online groups or message boards.
  • Parkinson’s affects more than just the person who has it. It also affects your loved ones. Be sure to include them in your decisions.

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1- Mayo clinic. Parkinson’s disease. July 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/parkinsons-disease/basics/definition/con-20028488

2- Healthlink BC. Parkinsons. February 19, 2016. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw93186

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