5 facts on Parkinson’s

Written by Helen Foster for Australian Seniors.                        

A progressive brain disorder with no exact known cause, Parkinson’s disease typically causes movement symptoms like stiffness, slowness and tremor and affects as many as 219,000 Australians nationally. Professor David Finkelstein, who researches Parkinson’s at Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, shares five things he’d really like you to know about it. Finkelstein was interviewed exclusively by Australian Seniors for this article.

Early symptoms of Parkinson's                              

While the majority of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s are over 60, symptoms begin 15-20 years before diagnosis – they just aren’t the symptoms you expect. People who develop a cluster of symptoms including reduced sense of smell, anxiety, constipation and sleep disorders in their 40s are more likely to also be diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We suspect if we use medications currently in development, we may stop Parkinson’s developing – but further research is needed. Head to Parkinson’s Australia for more information and support on this topic.

Other health issues

Diabetics who treat their disease lower their Parkinson’s risk, people who control their asthma have a lower risk – and anything that is good for the heart is also good for the brain, so lowers risk. That means exercising daily, keeping a healthy weight and controlling blood pressure. And get your flu and COVID vaccinations – after every significant outbreak of flu, Parkinson’s-like diseases increase, and we’re certain that COVID will trigger a similar rise. 

Social factors

Isolation and loneliness have been shown to worsen the symptoms, so it’s important to stay social. Activities like singing, dancing and exercise can also help improve vocal or motor abilities, reducing symptom progression. Don’t underestimate the importance of changes that make life feel better in helping this condition. 

Treatment options for Parkinson’s

We can’t yet cure Parkinson’s but there are treatments that reduce symptoms. The most common, a medication called levodopa, increases longevity to the same as someone without Parkinson’s. This has taught us that symptomatic relief and improving quality of life is important to handling the condition. Other treatment options include injections, sublingual drugs (that go under your tongue) and deep brain stimulation, where surgery is used to insert an electric needle in the brain to stimulate the parts controlling movement.

Team building

Managing Parkinson’s is not just about medication, it’s also about the team of people that surrounds you. Because we know improving quality of life improves outcomes, treatment is shifting focus towards this and studies are showing that if you have a multidisciplinary team – a neurologist, a GP, a voice coach and physiotherapist – all working together, risk of falls, for example, are reduced by 50%. That’s huge. 

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