What is Parkinson's Disease (PD)?
Parkinson's disease as well as young onset, or early onset Parkinson’s disease, is a manifestation of the same chronic progressive neurological disease that affect a small area of nerve cells (neurons) in an area of the brain known as the substantia nigra. These cells normally produce dopamine, a chemical (neurotransmitter) that transmits signals between areas in the brain that, when working normally, coordinate smooth and balanced muscle movement. It is now known that there are other areas of the brain that can be involved, which results in non-motor Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
Parkinson's disease causes these nerve cells to die, and as a result, body movements and other functions are affected by the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. We do not yet know what causes these cells to die. "Parkinsonism" is a term that is often used interchangeably with Parkinson's disease. Medically, Parkinsonism refers to any condition that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.
What is Young Onset Parkinson's Disease (YOPD)?
When someone who is 21-40 years old receives a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, it is referred to as young onset Parkinson's disease, or early onset Parkinson’s. Although most symptoms are the same at whatever age PD develops, managing the disease can be particularly challenging for a younger person and the person's family medically, psychologically and socially.
In general, young people tend to have a smoother course of the illness. Overall, the rate of the disease's progression is usually much slower in younger than older people, which may be due in part to the fact that younger people tend to have fewer general health problems. Associated problems such as memory loss, confusion and balance difficulties also tend to be less frequent in young people with the disease. However, young people often have more involuntary movement problems due to the most commonly prescribed PD medication, levodopa. For this reason, young onset patients are usually treated initially with alternatives to levodopa.
What Are The Primary Motor Symptoms of Early Onset Parkinson's?
- Tremor (when limb is at rest)
- Bradykinesia (slowness)
- Rigidity (stiffness)
- Postural instability (balance problems)
It is important to know that not all of these symptoms must be present for a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease to be considered. In fact, younger people may only notice one or two of these motor symptoms, especially in the early stages of the disease. Finally, not everyone with PD has a tremor, nor is a tremor proof positive of Parkinson's. If you suspect PD, see a neurologist or movement disorders specialist.
What Are Some of the Non-Motor Symptoms?
- Changes in mood, especially depression
- Sleep disorders
- Changes in thinking
- Problems with low blood pressure, bowel, bladder and sweating
- Skin changes
Can I Work if I Have Early Onset Parkinson's Disease?
It is not only possible to work with young onset Parkinson's disease, it is probable. Most people who were working prior to diagnosis continue to work for some period of time afterwards.
"How long will I be able to work?" This is usually the more difficult question to answer. The length of time each person continues working will depend on many different factors. Some will be related to the disease itself such as symptoms, medication side effects, or progression of the disease; others are likely to be environmental factors including the overall economy and your particular employer. Learn More.
Who Gets Early Onset Parkinson's Disease?
It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's disease. Men are slightly more likely to develop the disease than women, and approximately 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Because the majority of people who get Parkinson's disease are over the age of 60, it has been (and continues to be) thought of as an "older person's" disease. Because of this, the disease is often overlooked in younger people, leading many to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for extended periods of time. In fact, about 10%-20% of those diagnosed with Parkinson's disease are under age 50, and about half of those are diagnosed before age 40.
Is It Genetic or Hereditary?
The cause of Parkinson's disease is not yet known. However, Parkinson's disease has appeared across several generations of some families, which could indicate that certain forms of the disease are hereditary or genetic. Many researchers think that Parkinson's disease may be caused by genetic factors combined with other external factors. The field of genetics is playing an ever greater role in PD research, and scientists are continually working towards determining the cause or causes of PD.
Is There a Cure for Parkinson's Disease?
To date, there is no known cure or way to prevent Parkinson's disease. However, research is ongoing and remarkable progress is being made. There is very real hope that the causes, whether genetic, environmental, or some combination of the two, will soon be identified and the precise effects of these causes on brain function will be understood. Although there is no cure for the disease at this time, by identifying symptoms and determining a proper course of treatment, most people with the disease are able to remain active and lead fulfilling lives.
Are There Doctors Who Specialize in Parkinson's Disease?
Doctors who are specially trained to diagnose and treat conditions of the brain and nervous system are called neurologists. Some neurologists have a subspecialty in movement disorders and work extensively with patients who have Parkinson's disease and other similar conditions. These doctors also may have experience dealing with early onset Parkinson’s symptoms. You can ask your physician if they have specific experience with younger patients, or whether they can refer you to a doctor who does.
How Do I Find a Parkinsons's Disease Specialist?
Larger hospitals or university systems often have movement disorders centers. If you do not live in or near a large city, you may have to travel further for an appointment. While not as convenient, you may find it worthwhile to work with a physician who deals exclusively with movement disorders. Often, once stabilized, in-person appointments are not required very frequently.