Moving Right Along: Early Detection for Parkinson’s

elderly woman thinks

(DGIwire) — Parkinson’s disease afflicts up to 1.5 million Americans, according to the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF). On its website, the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation notes the disease involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, called neurons. According to the NPF, Parkinson’s primarily affects neurons in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As Parkinson’s progresses, notes the NPF, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally.

Still, recent advances in early diagnosis of Parkinson’s have given the research community hope. A January 2015 study by Dr. Anette Schrag and other neurologists at University College London, published in The Lancet, identified a slew of symptoms that were more likely to be present in people who years later were diagnosed with Parkinson’s, according to a report in The New York Times. Schrag’s findings seem to confirm a view commonly held among neurologists that the damage from Parkinson’s begins well before the development of symptoms such as rigidity, unsteady walking and tremors, the Times noted.

The Lancet study showed that up to five years before their diagnosis, those diagnosed with Parkinson’s experienced a greater likelihood of balance problems, low blood pressure, dizziness, urinary and erectile dysfunction, fatigue, depression, tremor and anxiety. Furthermore, as Dr. Claire Henchcliffe, Director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Institute at Weill Cornell Medical Center told the Times, REM sleep behavior disorder—along with a deteriorating sense of smell and subtle cognitive changes—were strong predictors of the disease.

Henchcliffe’s findings were backed up by Dr. Melissa Nirenberg of New York University Medical Center, who, according to the Times, found that four out of five people suffering from the sleep disorder eventually experience Parkinson’s or a similar neurodegenerative disease. So why is it important to catch the disease early? A main reason: if a patient is high-risk, he or she might elect to participate in a clinical trial of a drug that may slow or halt the progression of Parkinson’s.

Quality of life is another important factor. While catching the disease early is very important, so is maintaining quality of life for those who continue to suffer from Parkinson’s.