April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, a time to spread the word about this degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, each year in the United States, 50,000 to 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) are diagnosed. More than one million people in the U.S., and between four and six million worldwide, live with the disease.
PD is caused by a decreased production of the chemical dopamine in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia, but there is no clear reason for the change. It is typically diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 60, and is slightly more common in males. However, Michael J. Fox has a type of Parkinson’s that has an early age of onset. The early signs of Parkinson’s disease are subtle and it may take a few years before diagnosis is reached. Warning signs of PD include:
- Small handwriting
- Loss of smell
- Difficulty swallowing and chewing
- Speaking with a soft voice
- Minimal facial expressions (masked face)
- Trouble moving, swinging arms and walking
Later stage symptoms associated with Parkinson’s are:
- Tremor in hands, arms, legs or face
- Stiffness in the arms, legs or trunk
- Slowness in movement
- Impaired balance and coordination
Eventually, PD symptoms may progress, causing a stooped posture and short, fast steps, which contributes to fall risk. While Parkinson’s is considered a progressive disease, many of the symptoms may be improved or delayed with the use of medications, deep brain stimulators and exercise. Through exercise, the brain establishes new neural pathways for movement, or neuroplasticity. The most important kinds of exercise to nourish neuroplasticity, maintain strength and mobility and reduce the risk of falls are:
- Exercises involving large movements, like walking.
- Activities that involve doing something new, such as problem solving through an obstacle course.
- Combining all exercises with other tasks, like counting, talking or looking for objects.
- Strengthening and stretching the legs to maintain mobility and the back muscles to improve posture.
Exercises can be individualized through work with a physical therapist or performed in group classes within the community. Some beneficial classes include Delay the Disease, Tai Chi and Silver Sneakers. Find a class in your area or visit a physical therapist to maintain function and quality of life.