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Demystifying Parkinson’s disease: early signs and progression

Affecting approximately 1% of the population aged over 65, and almost 10% of seniors above 80 years old, Parkinson’s disease can fairly be described as a significant medical condition, deserving our full attention. To help you better understand this disorder, here are a few aspects to help demystify Parkinson’s disease, from its early signs to its evolution, as well as the best approaches and solutions.

Understanding Parkinson’s disease

For better care of this condition, the first step is to improve our knowledge and understanding of what Parkinson’s disease really is, and how it affects the daily lives of seniors.

Definition: what is Parkinson’s disease?

Defined as a neurodegenerative disease of the central nervous system, the consequences of Parkinson’s disease emerge from the progressive destruction of neurons in specific regions of the brain, more precisely in the substantia nigra. Due to the loss of these neurons, affected individuals begin to produce less dopamine (an essential hormone in daily life), causing the first signs and symptoms to appear.

Signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s

Since the diagnosis of this disease is mainly based on the recognition of symptoms, it is important to be aware of them. So, if you or an elderly relative suffer from any of these signs, it would be advisable to consult a doctor to investigate further. Among all the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, the motor system is the most affected:

  1. Tremors: The characteristic tremors of Parkinson’s are involuntary, occurring mainly at rest. Most often, only one side of the body is affected. While many areas may be targeted, fingers and hands are usually the most common at an early stage. Because this is probably the most visible symptom, particular attention should be paid.
  2. Rigidity: Defined by an abnormal stiffness of muscles, rigidity is one of the most common signs of Parkinson’s disease. In addition to being a possible cause of pain (neck, back, shoulders, etc.), these muscle contractions can lead to other secondary consequences such as a change in posture, greater generalized fatigue, altered facial expression, or even difficulties in the accomplishment of simple everyday tasks such as dressing or eating with utensils for example.
  3. Slowness of movements: Also known by the medical term bradykinesia, this motor symptom is also part of the early signs of Parkinson’s disease. More specifically, coordination and precision of movement (reduced fine dexterity) tend to be impaired.

Apart from these three characteristic motor symptoms, Parkinson’s disease can also cause other types of problems.  Non-motor symptoms are in fact often more difficult to identify. Depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, incontinence, vision problems and loss of smell are just a few examples of signs to be aware of in Parkinson’s disease.

Progression of Parkinson’s disease

As a degenerative condition, Parkinson’s disease is recognized for the evolution of its symptoms over time. Although the progression is highly variable from one person to another, and can hardly be predicted in advance, various classification systems exist to help health care professionals categorize the stages of Parkinson’s disease.

The Hoehn & Yahr system, for example, classifies Parkinson’s disease into five stages, based primarily on symptoms and functional limitations :

Stage I: Symptoms are mild, visible on only one side of the body, and do not significantly affect daily tasks. The first signs at this stage are more often tremors and movement disorders.

Stage II: Progressive symptoms, generally accompanied by muscular rigidity, resulting in some degree of limitation in daily activities. At this point, despite certain difficulties, the person remains mostly independent.

Stage III: As motor symptoms worsen, day-to-day tasks may become more challenging. Affecting sometimes both sides of the body (bilateral involvement), posture and gait can be compromised, leading to more frequent falls.

Seniors living with stage 3 Parkinson’s disease should therefore be particularly vigilant to prevent this increased risk of falls.

Although it may be possible for some seniors to continue to live at home on their own, home care services offer extremely valuable assistance.

Stage IV: During the fourth stage of the disease, people suffering from Parkinson’s are usually confronted with predominant day-to-day symptoms, leading to significant functional limitations. Although walking may still be possible, it often requires some form of assistance, such as the use of a walker or cane.

➜ Once the disease has progressed to this stage, it usually becomes impossible to continue living alone at home. For an elderly individual suffering from Parkinson’s, the transition to a retirement home then becomes a solution to consider.

Stage V: In the most advanced stage, based on the same classification system, rigidity progresses to a level that makes it impossible to stand and walk, resulting in significant loss of autonomy. Continuous care is then required to accompany these people through their daily routine.

Looking to learn more about the progression of the disease and alternative ways of classifying it?

➜ Take a look at our article: «Recognizing the different stages of Parkinson’s disease».

Demystifying some of the myths about Parkinson’s disease

Although everyone has already heard of Parkinson’s disease on several occasions, there are still several misconceptions surrounding this neurodegenerative disorder.  Let’s look at some of the aspects that need to be demystified to better understand this condition.

Parkinson or Alzheimer ?

As these two neurodegenerative diseases are among the most frequently encountered in the population, some people may be confused between the characteristics of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Of the numerous differences between these two conditions, we can essentially note that Alzheimer’s primarily affects cognitive functions, while Parkinson’s mainly impacts the motor and functional capacities.

Parkinsonism vs Parkinson’s disease ?

Although Parkinson’s syndrome (parkinsonism) and Parkinson’s disease are most often associated, they do represent two distinct entities.

Parkinsonism is the term used to describe a group of symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors, slowness of movement and rigidity. However, these symptoms can sometimes exist in association with other medical disorders, without being necessarily diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. In such cases, the term Parkinsonism (or Parkinsonian syndrome) is then preferred.

TRUE or FALSE: Parkinson’s symptoms are only physical ?

While it is true that Parkinson’s disease is characterized by a predominance of physical (motor) signs, the progression of the condition can also lead to numerous non-motor symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or even the appearance of cognitive problems (dementia), hallucinations or behavioral disorders. The right answer will then be: FALSE.

Parkinson’s disease in seniors: a comprehensive management approach

If you or an elderly family member is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, you naturally need to get as many answers as possible to help you find the best way to manage the condition. While many solutions are possible, based on the severity of symptoms, the best option is to make sure to take a global and comprehensive approach to the situation, including:

  • Medical treatments and medication (levodopa/carbidopa, dopamine agonists, amantadine, etc.), as prescribed and used according to the recommendations of your doctor, specialist neurologist or treating medical team;
  • Multidisciplinary approach involving, for example, the intervention of occupational therapists, nutritionists and physiotherapists to assist seniors living with Parkinson’s disease;
  • Adapting the living environment of each senior to enhance safety and to make daily life more comfortable;
  • Adjusting routine activities, while maintaining a healthy level of physical activity and exercise;
  • Enjoy the benefits of home support services to remain fully independent and at ease at home;
  • Based on the progression of the disease, moving to a retirement home may also be an appropriate solution, allowing to continue to live in a secure and enjoyable environment that is fully adapted to the person’s needs.

Interested in learning more about Parkinson’s disease? Looking to further demystify the signs and progression of this condition among seniors?

Through their expertise and great empathy, Visavie‘s Senior Living Advisors  can provide you with personalized advice, and accompany you with the utmost respect through these important stages of your life.

So please do not hesitate to contact Visavie‘s team and take advantage of our caring and attentive service !

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