April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month — a time to focus on the incurable neurodegenerative movement disorder that afflicts between seven and 10 million people worldwide, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. It is a progressive, chronic disease the incidence of which increases with age. One of the more public faces of Parkinson’s is actor Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed in 1991 and has waged a very public struggle with the disease after going public with his diagnosis seven years later. Maurice White, founder of the band Earth, Wind & Fire, recently succumbed to the disease.
Despite the number of sufferers — in the U.S., there are more than one million individuals alone — you might not know much about Parkinson’s. In the spirit of this month’s focus on awareness, are some of the things you should know.
Parkinson’s is a disease of the brain. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, the brains of those with the disease slowly stop production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This causes the tremors that are so symptomatic of Parkinson’s, since dopamine helps regulate smooth movement of the muscles.
Not only does the risk of Parkinson’s disease increase with age — the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation said that only about 4% of sufferers are diagnosed before the age of 50 — but it is more prevalent in men than in women. According to parkinsons.org, declining estrogen levels, exposure to certain environmental toxins such as pesticides and herbicides, and certain genetic factors also can play a role in increasing one’s risk.
Apart from the aforementioned tremors, the Mayo Clinic said other symptoms of Parkinson’s include slow and more difficult movement, muscle stiffness, impaired posture, loss of automatic movements like smiling and blinking, and speech changes. Symptoms will initially be mild and likely affect only one side of the body. Even as symptoms progress, eventually affecting both sides of the body, the Mayo Clinic said that one side of your body will often have more severe symptoms than the other. If you demonstrate any of these symptoms — especially if you are in particularly at risk for the disease as described earlier — the Mayo Clinic recommends seeing your doctor, not only to get an accurate diagnosis but also to rule out other ailments.
Medication — those types of drugs that seek to restore the balance of dopamine in the brain — are often used to treat Parkinson’s over the long term. However, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, more studies have shown that exercise can help treat Parkinson’s and diminish the presentation of symptoms. A review of recent research by the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in the Netherlands and the Oregon Health & Science University identified 13 research studies conducted between 2001 and 2013 that showed the potential of exercise in helping gait, balance and strength in Parkinson’s patients as well as staving off depression and fatigue. Exercise regimens in these studies varied from aerobics to strength training to tai chi to dance.
The authors of the review acknowledged that there were no guidelines in place regarding specific exercises to do in the case of a Parkinson’s diagnosis. As always, the best advice is to consult your physician following your diagnosis. However, they did recommend starting with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines for older adults and patients 50 years and older with chronic disorders. These include:
· Aerobic exercise five days per week for 30 minutes at moderate intensity or three days per week at high intensity.
· Strength training 2 days per week involving major muscle groups.
· Flexibility training that focuses on strengthening extensor muscles, or those that straighten limbs.
The authors recommend balance training based upon the severity of the disease stage.
If you have a Parkinson’s diagnosis and are cleared by your doctor to exercise, you might want to consider speaking with local or regional Parkinson’s organizations, as many organize fitness classes tailored specifically to address sufferers. More and more private gyms offer fitness classes for Parkinson’s patients, so it’s worth discussing your needs — and your doctor’s recommendations — with them, as well.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
· American Parkinson Disease Association, www.apdaparkinson.org
· The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, www.michaeljfox.org
· National Parkinson Foundation, www.parkinson.org
· Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, www.pdf.org