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Parkinson's Disease: FAQs

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April 4, 2019

According to the Parkinson's Foundation, nearly 1 million people will be living with Parkinson's disease in the United States by the year 2020. Approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with it each year. Incidences of Parkinson's disease increase with age, and men are 1.5 times more likely to have it than women. While many people have heard of the disease, not everyone understands what symptoms to look for. Drexel neurologist Anh-Thu Vu, MD, specializes in the treatment of Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. Here she answers some common questions about Parkinson's disease.

What is Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease is a chronic and slowly progressive brain disease that leads to stiffness and slowness of movement, trouble walking and usually tremors. It is caused by a loss of neurons that normally produce a chemical called dopamine, which is needed by the brain to control movements. It can also affect other functions of the brain and body too and can cause other symptoms (called “non-motor symptoms”) like weak voice, imbalance, constipation and depression.

Does Parkinson's disease only affect older people (age 50 and above)?

While Parkinson's disease is more common as people get older, younger people can have Parkinson's disease as well. One example is the actor and philanthropist Michael J. Fox who was diagnosed at the age of 29.

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What symptoms should a person look for?

Sometimes the first symptom is a slight tremor, usually in one hand. Other people may notice a change in handwriting, weak voice or trouble walking. People may not swing one arm when they walk. They may notice a loss of facial expression. If symptoms start to affect their daily activities, they should be seen by a neurologist for evaluation.

How is Parkinson's disease diagnosed?

It is diagnosed by an expert clinician, based on history, physical examination and response to medication. There is no blood test for Parkinson's disease. Sometimes certain brain scans can be helpful, such as an MRI or a DATscan, but these are not always necessary.

What are the stages of Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease progresses differently for each patient, but people can live for many years and maintain a good quality of life. Early in Parkinson's disease, people may have few symptoms and are able to do everything they need to independently. As the disease progresses, people may have a little more trouble doing daily activities, but they can manage with the right medications. Later in the course of the disease, they may need more specialized medications and may develop trouble with thinking and memory and have more trouble with balance. Advanced Parkinson's involves loss of the ability to walk, dementia and needing more help with daily activities.

How is Parkinson's disease treated?

There are many medications available to manage symptoms of Parkinson's disease. One of the most common is a combination medication called carbidopa-levodopa, which helps to replace dopamine. As the disease progresses, people may need to take more of the medication or add other medications. There are also surgeries such as deep brain stimulation surgery to help people with the symptoms. Physical and occupational therapy and regular exercise are just as important as medication and help patients to function better. Patients may also need medication treatment for some of the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson's, such as depression, urinary difficulty and constipation.

Related Physician

Anh-Thu Vu, MD

Anh-Thu Vu, MD
Practice: Drexel Neurosciences Institute
Specialty: Neurology

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

The images being used are for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted is a model.

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