Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is the second most commonly diagnosed neurodegenerative condition behind Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s the 14th leading cause of death in America, and if that wasn’t scary enough, 64% of patients diagnosed die within six years and only 23% of patients living past the ten-year mark are free from dementia.
And you thought all you had to worry about was Alzheimer’s?
I was shocked to read these numbers because, while I am hearing about more and more people with Parkinson’s, I don’t see it all over the media or ribbon campaigns for it.
What Parkinson’s Looks Like In The Brain
PD is a progressive disease of the nervous system in which a person’s brain gradually stops producing the neurotransmitter, dopamine. With less and less dopamine, they lose the ability to regulate their movements, body, and emotions. The condition is associated with degeneration of the basal ganglia of the brain and alterations in other parts of the brain and neurotransmitters.
PD progresses slowly in most people with symptoms often taking years to develop, and many can live for years with the disease. PD itself isn’t fatal. However, complications from it are serious and can lead to death. The four main-movement related symptoms of Parkinson’s are:
- Tremor, which means shaking or trembling. Tremor may affect your hands, arms, or legs.
- Stiff muscles.
- Slow movement.
- Problems with balance or walking.
Many other problems, such as depression, constipation, sleep disturbances, and cognitive issues, may be present.
What Causes Parkinson’s?
Although it’s well-known that lack of dopamine causes the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, it’s not clear why the involved brain cells deteriorate. Genetic and pathological studies have revealed that various dysfunctional cellular processes, inflammation, and stress can all contribute to cell damage.
- Age is the largest risk factor for the development and progression of Parkinson’s disease. Most people who develop Parkinson’s disease are older than 60 years of age.
- Men are affected about 2 times more often than women.
- A small number of individuals are at increased risk because of a family history.
- Head trauma, illness, or exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides and herbicides may be a risk factor.
In Preventing Parkinson’s: How to Cut Your Risk by Strengthening Your Multiple Shields, Ben Weinstock PT, DPT, writes:
It appears that aging combined with certain genetic vulnerabilities and environmental exposures leads to PD in susceptible individuals. The combination of unhealthy vulnerabilities and exposures is referred to as multiple hits. These multiple hits may be: poor diet; poor sleep; head trauma; lack of exercise; stress; exposures to toxins; and other unhealthy factors.
At this time, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. But there are several medicines that can help control the symptoms, making the disease easier to live with. Our bodies have developed what Weinstock calls “shields” which interact synergistically to protect us against PD and help endure the multiple insults our brains encounter while just living a normal life.
According to Weinstock, preventing PD boils down to the following factors:
Having a close relative with PD, does increase the risk of developing the disease. While you can’t change the genes you were born with, epigenetics research is proving that the life you live turns those genes on and off. Weinstock writes “Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.”
Eating a healthy diet is a key element in an anti-PD lifestyle. As with the prevention of disease and promoting maximum health, an optimum diet for reducing the risk of Parkinson’s would include lots of greens, vegetables, and fruits, preferably organic, and foods high in protein, vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and good fats, while being low in carbohydrates, chemicals, and foods causing inflammation.
People who engage in moderate to vigorous physical activities have a significantly lower prevalence of PD. Unfortunately, once someone has developed Parkinson’s, there’s a strong likelihood that the benefits of exercise will not be fully realized due to lower levels of neurotransmitters in the body.
Working up a sweat regularly is about the best thing you can do for your brain. In How Exercise Helps Your Brain, I write:
Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels which triggers biochemical changes protecting the new resulting neurons by bathing them in nerve growth factor (BDNF). These conditions encourage your brain to grow and change by forming new neural pathways and synaptic connections, a process known as neuroplasticity.
Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s.
Chronic stress can upset the brain activity contributing to PD. Acute stress causes alterations in the protective function of the blood brain barrier, and long-term stress is toxic to the brain. It’s possible that repeated stress leads to the depletion of dopamine. Learn how you can break the cycle of stress here.
Exposure to certain toxins may be directly responsible for triggering Parkinson’s. In the book, Weinstock tells of Canadian study done in 2005 in which eleven people’s blood was tested, and an average of 44 chemicals were found present. I don’t know about you, but I think, “A whopping 44? And that was 10 years ago. I’m sure it’s worse now!”
Every one of us is a walking polluted reservoir of chemicals. From air pollution, bug and weed killers, solvents, metals, PCBs, to smoking, drug use, and radiation, you are immersed in and surrounded by known neurotoxins every day. Avoiding toxins will preserve your overall and brain health.
Managing Medical Problems
Poor general health management can lead to PD later in life. Obesity is linked to altered dopamine levels in the brain and in midlife, triples the risk of developing PD. Insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL, and inflammation may all contribute to the disease.
Manage chronic physical pain, which is bad for your brain. Take care of your teeth and gums. Know the side effects of your medications and their interactions.
Preventing Head Injuries
The damage caused by a head injury may lead to developing PD years later. While it’s well-known that traumatic brain injuries can lead to short-term or permanent problems with memory, balance, and cognition, research is showing that repeated lower impact blows to the head also add up to take a toll. Having a brain injury resulting in the loss of consciousness, amnesia or hospitalization increases the risk of PD. Losing consciousness for five minutes or longer more than doubles a person’s chances, and the risk goes up with each occurrence.
Within seconds, a head injury can set in motion a cascade of damaging pathological changes which can include the loss of dopamine producing molecules for months after the injury.
Like cutting the risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia, cancer, and other disease, your best bet in preventing Parkinson’s is in adopting a brain-healthy, proactive lifestyle.
Note: All information for this article, except where otherwise noted and linked, was taken from and is referenced in the book, Preventing Parkinson’s: How to Cut Your Risk by Strengthening Your Multiple Shields.