HEALTH & WELLNESS Middle Age Maladies  >  Parkinson’s Disease Part 1: Causes from Genetics to Toxic Exposures

Parkinson’s Disease Part 1: Causes from Genetics to Toxic Exposures

Parkinson’s Disease Part 1: Causes from Genetics to Toxic Exposures
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Parkinson’s disease affects more than one million Americans.  This series will explore the causes, symptom and treatments.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder that commonly appears after the age of 60 but can show up as soon as 40 or younger. Unlike many diseases, there is no easy nor precise way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease.

Meet Dr. James Parkinson

The disease was first identified by an English doctor by the name of Dr. James Parkinson in 1817.  It is fundamentally a disease of the central nervous system that results from the loss of certain cells in the brain.  These cells produce a chemical identified as “dopamine” which enhances the transmission of signals within the brain to coordinate movement.  That’s why one of the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is a shaking hand or “resting tremor.”

Family history as a factor

A frustrating fact for doctors and researchers is that the cause or causes of Parkinson’s disease remains elusive.  Some clinical studies indicate that there is a genetic predisposition for Parkinson’s.  If your mother, father, grandparent or sibling has been diagnosed, there is a remote statistical probability that you may have the potential for the disease.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors have also been identified in clinical studies particularly as it relates to toxic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and other toxic elements.  When these external factors related to toxicity are combined with a family history of Parkinson’s the odds of developing the disease increases.

There has been some research done that indicates that Parkinson’s can be the result of a single genetic mutation.  When this occurs the mutated gene is in fact transmitted from generation to generation.  In spite of these facts there is nothing to indicate that the presence of this mutated gene will automatically cause Parkinson’s disease in future generations.

The current thinking from scientists and researchers is that Parkinson’s disease is caused by a fundamental combination of genetic predisposition and some external environmental factors such as exposure to toxic chemicals.

The 50+ factor

At this point the most significant trigger for Parkinson’ disease is advancing age.  It’s also been shown that men have a higher risk for Parkinson’s than women.

A curious side note is a study that showed smoking and caffeine consumption actually reduced the rates of Parkinson’s disease.  That’s no reason to start smoking and we all love our morning cup of coffee, but this continues to point to the frustration that researchers continue to have as they try to understand this disease.

Concussions and head injury as a factor

There are also some indications that previous head injury could result in the onset of Parkinson’s.  An ominous possibility given the current concern in the NFL and amongst high-school and College football players who suffer concussions or repeated concussions.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis is never easy

There are also instances where similar neurological conditions can be confused with Parkinson’s disease.  According to the Mayo Clinic the following medications and symptoms can confuse a Parkinson’s diagnosis:

  • Medication-induced parkinsonism. Medications frequently associated with the development of parkinsonism are those often prescribed as anti-psychotics or for major depression.
  • Sometimes anti-nausea medications can also cause parkinsonism. Unlike Parkinson’s disease, symptoms typically occur on both sides of the body simultaneously. These symptoms usually resolve within weeks or months of discontinuing the medication.
  • Essential tremor is considered the most common neurologic movement disorder. It is a chronic condition characterized by involuntary, rhythmic tremor of a body part, most typically the hands and arms, especially when they are being used for activities such as writing or eating.
  • Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). PSP is characterized by early onset of imbalance, frequent falls, rigidity of the trunk, and (eventually) eye-movement problems. Symptoms usually begin after age 50 and progress more rapidly than with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH). NPH is distinguished by a trio of symptoms: Gait problems, urinary incontinence and dementia. Experienced movement disorder neurologists can generally easily distinguish between NPH and Parkinson’s disease. Occasionally, a brain scan may be useful.
  • The presence of Lewy bodies. Clumps of specific substances within brain cells are microscopic markers of Parkinson’s disease. These are called Lewy bodies, and researchers believe these Lewy bodies hold an important clue to the cause of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Alpha-synuclein is found within Lewy bodies. Although many substances are found within Lewy bodies, scientists believe an important one is the natural and widespread protein called alpha-synuclein (A-synuclein). It’s found in all Lewy bodies in a clumped form that cells can’t break down. This is currently an important focus among Parkinson’s disease researchers.

If you think you or a loved one has Parkinson’s… 

You need to see a neurologist to get an accurate diagnosis for Parkinson’s.  Don’t be surprised if they tell you they’re not sure.  As we’ve discussed there is no hard and fast test for Parkinson’s, but over time they may correctly analyze your condition and prescribe a course of action.

We’ll cover basic symptoms in the next article in this series and then discuss current treatments in the third and final article.



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