Understanding Parkinson’s Disease Risk

Parkinson’s disease is a lifelong, progressive condition that develops when the brain stops making dopamine, a natural chemical involved with controlling our body’s movements. It is classified as a movement disease, because it affects mobility with tremors, stiffness, and balance problems. It can also show other symptoms that are not associated with movement, such as fatigue and depression. 

Experts estimate that more than one million Americans may be affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Risk factors

Can you reduce your risk of Parkinson’s disease? Some diseases have clear risks factors that can be largely controlled. For example, people who do not smoke or breathe in secondhand smoke are much less likely to develop lung cancer; there is a clear causal connection between the behavior of smoking and the risk of lung cancer. 

Parkinson’s disease is not like this. The most important risk factor for Parkinson’s disease is age. Early Onset Parkinson’s disease is diagnosed in about 10% of patients, but most people who develop Parkinson’s do so after the age of 50. We do not control aging, and it is not a lifestyle choice. 

There are some other risk factors:

  • Some genetic factors have been identified. About 10% of the genetic markers for Parkinson’s have been identified. However, not everyone with these markers develops the disease, and not everyone with the disease has these markers. 
  • Some environmental factors have been discovered. Some pesticides and some chemicals which have been found in street drugs have been associated with Parkinson’s Disease. Again, not everyone with exposure has the disease and not everyone with the disease has had exposure. 
  • There is some evidence that repeated head trauma, such as a professional boxer might experience, may be connected with Parkinson’s disease. However, once again the connection is not always seen.
  • Men are more likely than women to develop this condition.

Since most of the risk factors are generally not under our control, we can’t usually plan to avoid Parkinson’s. However, after a diagnosis, good choices for diet and exercise may slow the process or help patients feel better. 

Regular exercise, plenty of fiber, and good hydration are wise choices for people with Parkinson’s disease, as they are for all of us. In addition, some medications which may be used for Parkinson’s work better when taken with a low-protein meal. Your doctor can tell you whether you should save high-protein foods for meals when you are not taking these medications.

More research is needed

Many researchers are working to find out more about what causes Parkinson’s. Knowing more about the disease may help move toward an eventual cure.

Some of the newest studies on Parkinson’s have seen possible connections with COVID-19, the possibility of engineering neural cells to create treatment options, and correlation between post-diagnosis weight changes and cognitive decline. 

The more we know about Parkinson’s, the better.

Learn more at the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative. You can share data with the initiative at their data collection page