Parkinson's Myths

10 Myths You Believed About Parkinson’s

Do all those living with Parkinson’s have tremors? Does Parkinson’s only affect motor skills? Learn about the common myths and misconceptions about Parkinson’s here.

by Hannef Esquander

What is Parkinson’s? 

Parkinson’s disease (PD) occurs when brain cells that make dopamine, a chemical that coordinates movement, stop working or die. It is often referred to as a movement disorder as PD can cause tremor, stiffness, slowness as well as walking and balance problems. Other symptoms of PD include constipation, memory problems, depression and others that do not relate to movement. These symptoms will slowly worsen over time making PD a lifelong and progressive disease.

Living with Parkinson’s disease is a unique experience that varies from one person to another. The progression and symptoms of the disease are different in each person. It is hard even for the doctors to predict how fast or slow PD will progress and the level of severity of the symptoms. Although a lot of similarities are observed among individuals with PD as the disease progresses, there is no guarantee you will experience similar symptoms that others are experiencing.

Parkinson’s affects nearly 20,000 Malaysians in 2018 and the number was estimated to increase fivefold to 120.000 by 2040. 6 million people suffered from PD worldwide yet most of us are still clueless on what it meant to live with Parkinson’s. All the myths and misinformation being spread out there is not helping the situation either. Here are some of the most common myths about Parkinson’s disease debunked. 

Myth 1: All people with Parkinson’s disease have tremors, or shaking hands

Although tremors in the fingers and hands are the most common and recognisable feature of the disease, around 10-15% of people with Parkinson’s do not show this symptom. As symptoms develop gradually, tremors are probably unnoticeable in early stages of the disease.  

Myth 2: Parkinson’s is a senior citizens disease

It is true that Parkinson’s disease is more common in older people and the average age of diagnosis is 60 years. However, about 4% of cases do occur in younger adults, particularly those below the age of 50.

Myth 3: Parkinson’s disease could be detected immediately with a test

Even with the rapid progress of science and technology, a specific test to diagnose Parkinson’s disease has yet to be discovered. Definitive diagnosis of PD still requires a certain duration to assess all the signs and symptoms.

Imaging tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound of the brain, and PET scans, can help rule out other disorders but are very effective in diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. A dopamine transporter scan (DaTscan) using CT imaging on the other hand, may be able to provide beneficial insights to help a doctor confirm a suspected Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Myth 4: If I get Parkinson’s disease, I will become disabled or die early

Parkinson’s disease is progressive but it is not considered fatal. There is still no known cure for it but with early and appropriate neurological care, PD patients can lead near-normal lives with a near-normal lifespan and manageable symptoms.

Myth 5: Parkinson’s disease involves only physical symptoms

The physical symptoms of PD such as tremors, difficulty walking, and speech changes are the most common because they are physical. A lot of people are not aware that PD also carries with it invisible symptoms such as smell dysfunction, fatigue, depression, sleep disorders, cognitive decline and dementia. These symptoms require equal amounts of attention and treatment.

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Myth 6. There is no effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease

Medications such as Levodopa can significantly improve symptoms by increasing or replacing dopamine. The bad news is Parkinson’s drugs may cause side effects and their effects may diminish or become less consistent over time.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a surgical procedure that involves electrodes implants that send electrical pulses to the brain which control body movements. DBS could be effective in people with advanced Parkinson’s disease who have unstable medication responses. It has shown tremendous results in stabilising medication fluctuations or reducing tremors.

Myth 7: People with Parkinson’s disease cannot exercise

Exercise and physical activity are actually recommended for people who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s Outcomes Project conducted research which showed that increasing physical activity to at least two and a half hours a week can slow the decline associated with the disease and improve the quality of life for individuals. 

Myth 8: Doctors could always tell the causes of Parkinson’s disease

A lot of research is needed to fully understand Parkinson’s disease including its actual causes. 

Past researchers have identified microscopic changes in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. This includes the presence of Lewy bodies – clumps of specific substances, including a protein called alpha-synuclein (a-synuclein) – within brain cells. The actual reason why these changes occur remain s unclear.

Genetic factors are thought to play a role in around 15 to 20 percent of cases. Exposure to certain toxins or environmental factors is believed to increase the risk of later Parkinson’s disease. Further research is needed to support this theory. Other therapies, such as physical therapy and speech therapy can also be helpful.

Myth 9: Parkinson’s disease can only be treated with medications

PD’s symptoms can be treated with medication but lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, muscle strengthening therapies and a healthy diet can further reduce the severity of symptoms and improve the quality of life. It has been observed that patients who exercised for one hour every week showed significant signs of improvement in daily activities.

Myth 10: Parkinson’s disease may cause death

You will not die from Parkinson’s disease but other problems like difficulty in swallowing may cause respiratory infections like pneumonia. The good news is many people never experience this and can live for decades after diagnosis.

Does Parkinson’s affect memory?

One of the most troubling potential symptoms of PD is its effect on memory. Although thinking and memory (cognitive) symptoms are common in Parkinson’s, not necessarily everyone experiences them. Some people are lucky that the symptoms are mild and do not have a major impact on work or daily activities. This is referred to as ‘mild cognitive impairment’. In others, the symptoms are more significant and the impact that they have in their everyday lives causes them to struggle even more as the disease progresses. This is classified as ‘dementia’.  People with Parkinson’s most commonly notice difficulty with different aspects of thinking and memory such as: 

  • Paying attention or concentrating (ie: reading a book, being in group conversations)
  • Multitasking and problem solving or executive function (ie: juggling multiple ongoing projects, figuring out solutions, such as navigating through a traffic jam or making dinner with limited available ingredient)
  • Seeing information three dimensionally or visuospatial skills (ie: making a mental map to walk around the neighborhood and back, estimating distance between cars while driving)
  • No matter when and how significantly Parkinson’s affects cognition, it tends to impact attention and executive function more than memory.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a change in thinking or memory that is considered normal for people as they age. It is not very severe and does not interfere with a person’s daily activities. People with MCI may feel distracted or disorganised and easily lose their train of thought. They might find it more challenging to concentrate or manage multiple tasks at once. Approximately 25 percent of people with Parkinson’s experience MCI. Mild cognitive impairment could stay the same, get better or worsen over time. In some people, MCI gradually progresses to dementia

Dementia

Dementia generally describes a change in thinking or memory that is significant enough to interfere with daily routines, work or social activities. If dementia occurs in Parkinson’s disease, it is typically in the later stage after years of living with the disease.

People with Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD) experience many of the same symptoms as those with mild cognitive impairment but more intensely. Due to their lack of ability to focus and executive function, they may find it difficult to plan and complete activities. They will take longer to process information and respond to questions. They may also have trouble finding words, get lost easily and are very easily confused.

Not everyone with Parkinson’s experiences dementia. About 40 percent of people with Parkinson’s have Parkinson’s disease dementia (PDD), and studies suggest this number may be higher in people who have suffered from the disease for more than 20 years. Certain factors may increase risk for dementia: a longer course of PD, significant movement problems (more walking and balance problems rather than tremor), mild cognitive impairment, hallucinations or delusions.

Medications can ease symptoms and improve quality of life, but they do not slow or stop the disease progression. Symptoms and their commonly used treatments include:

  • Thinking and memory changes
  • Movement problems
  • Altered mood and behaviour
  • Hallucinations and delusions (psychosis)

What’s the average lifespan of someone living with Parkinson’s?

According to some research, on average, people with Parkinson’s can expect to live almost as long as those who do not have the condition. While the disease itself is not fatal, related complications can reduce life expectancy by one to two years.  

A 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.

Factors that affect life expectancy

  • Parkinson’s and falls

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.

  • Age

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

  • Gender

Women have a reduced risk of getting Parkinson’s while men are 50 percent more likely to develop the condition. Researchers have not found the exact reasons for this. However, women with Parkinson’s may have a faster progression and reduced longevity. Symptoms in women may be different from symptoms in men.

  • 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.

Do not believe all the myths and misconceptions because Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease. 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 and get all the information that you need from reliable sources like Homage.  

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References

Parkinson’s disease: Myths and facts. White Swan Foundation website. Available at: https://www.whiteswanfoundation.org/disorders/neurodegenerative-disorders/myths-and-facts-parkinsons-disease Accessed Sept 14, 2021

8 Myths about Parkinson’s Disease. Neuro Spinal Hospital website. Available at: https://nsh.ae/8-myths-about-parkinsons-disease/. Accessed Sept 14, 2021.

Parkinson’s 101. The Michael J.Fox Foundation website. Available at: https://www.michaeljfox.org/parkinsons-101. Accessed Sept 14, 2021.

Does Parkinson’s Disease Affect Memory?. Eugeria website. Available at: https://info.eugeria.ca/en/does-parkinsons-disease-affect-memory/ Published: July 20, 2019. Accessed Sept 15, 2021.

What’s the Life Expectancy for Parkinson’s Disease? Healthline website. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/parkinsons/life-expectancy#outlook Updated: Jun 28, 2021. Accessed Sept 14, 2021.

 

About the Writer
Hannef Esquander
With more than a decade of experience writing about all different aspects of lifestyle; from entertainment and fashion to art and travels, Hannef now finds himself gaining interest towards health, well-being and spirituality.
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