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The facts on Parkinson's disease

What you need to know

When you hear the term Parkinson's disease (PD), uncontrolled shaking may be the first symptom that comes to mind. But, the signs and symptoms of PD can be different for everyone and they might come in ways you don't expect. 

Here's what you need to know about this progressive disorder. 

Parkinson’s disease at a glance

  • About one million people in the U.S. live with Parkinson’s disease. 
  • Every year, about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This, of course, does not reflect the thousands of cases that go undetected.
  • PD impacts the central nervous system and occurs when dopamine-producing nerve cells in the brain are decreased.
  • Primary symptoms include shaking, slow movement, stiffness and difficulty with balance.
  • There is no cure for PD. However, early detection and treatment can slow down the progression of the disease.
  • Parkinson’s is the second most common age-related neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease.
  • While Parkinson's reaches all demographics, the majority of people with PD are age 60 or older. Men and people with a family history of the disease have an increased risk.

Early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson's disease signs and symptoms can be different for everyone. Early signs may be mild and go unnoticed.

  • Tremor. A tremor of the finger, hand or foot, especially while the body is relaxed or at rest, is perhaps the most common warning sign.
  • Stiffness or slow movement. You may notice stiff limbs and slower, jerkier motions or movement. It may seem as though steps are becoming shorter, the arms don’t swing like they used to, or the feet seem stuck to the floor.
  • Loss of smell. Some research suggests that loss of smell is one of the earliest warning signs of Parkinson's, appearing years before the onset of other more noticeable symptoms.
  • A soft or low voice. People in early stages of Parkinson’s often speak in low tones, a hoarse voice, or with little inflection. They may also slur words, or hesitate before talking.
  • Writing changes. It may become more difficult to write, and your writing may appear smaller than usual.
  • Impaired posture and balance. Your posture may become stooped, or you may have balance problems as a result of Parkinson's disease.
  • Masked-like expression. Movement and control of small muscles in the face becomes more difficult. Less facial movements may make the face look less animated and natural.

You know your body better than anyone else. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your physical movement or behavior, or if something doesn’t feel right.

Exercise is key with Parkinson’s

Research has shown that exercise can improve gait (walking movements), balance, tremor, flexibility, grip strength and motor coordination. Exercise such as treadmill training and biking have all been shown to benefit, along with Tai Chi and yoga.

So far, studies have shown:

  • Engaging in any level of physical activity is beneficial, rather than being sedentary.
  • For people with mild to moderate Parkinson’s, targeted exercises can address specific symptoms. For example, aerobic exercise improves fitness, walking exercises assist in gait, resistance training strengthens muscles. One study showed that twice-a-week tango dancing classes helped improve motor symptoms, balance and walking speed.
  • Exercise may also improve cognition, depression and fatigue, but the research is still ongoing in these areas.

For more information about Parkinson’s disease, visit the American Parkinson Disease Association website External Site.

And, for some real-life advice for living the best possible life with Parkinson's disease, check out this Wellmark member's story.