Dear Savvy Senior: What are the early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease? I was just diagnosed with it after noticing hand tremors for nearly a year, but looking back, I’m wondering whether I missed any other early warning signs. — Tremoring Tom
Dear Tom: The holy grail in any progressive disease is to find it early enough to start effective treatment before irreversible damage has occurred. But recognizing the early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease is challenging because they’re usually subtle and can be easily overlooked, dismissed or even misdiagnosed.
Parkinson’s disease, which afflicts around 1 million Americans, is a degenerative disorder that occurs when the brain’s dopamine-producing neurons die or become impaired. This happens in the part of the brain that controls movement, which can cause tremors (or shaking), stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination.
The symptoms usually begin gradually and get worse over time, and the progression of symptoms is often different from one person to another. Some people with Parkinson’s become severely disabled, while others might experience only minor motor disruptions.
While the cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, scientists believe genetics and environmental factors (exposure to certain toxins) play a key role. Most people with Parkinson’s first develop the disease around age 60 or older, and men are more likely to develop it than are women.
Early warning signs
Parkinson’s disease is difficult to diagnose because there’s no definitive test to confirm it. Doctors, usually neurologists, will do an examination and evaluate a combination of warning signs, but symptoms can vary greatly by patient, which often leads to confusion and misdiagnosis. That said, here are some of the key signs and symptoms everyone should know.
>> Trouble sleeping: Thrashing around in bed or acting out dreams — kicking or punching — when asleep. This is a REM sleep behavior disorder and one of the strongest and earliest pre- diagnostic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
>> Loss of smell: Not being able to smell certain foods very well like bananas, dill pickles or licorice. This too is one of the earliest symptoms.
>> Constipation: Problems with digestion and bowel movements are a big problem for people with Parkinson’s, and an early sign that can occur up to 20 years before this disease is diagnosed.
>> Changes in handwriting: Writing might become harder to do, and your handwriting might appear much smaller than it has in the past.
>> Tremors: Slight shaking or tremor in your finger, thumb, hand or chin. The tremor usually happens at rest, and when you move the extremity it might disappear. This is the most common and recognizable outward sign of Parkinson’s disease, but by the time tremors start, the brain has already lost more than half of its dopamine-producing cells.
>> Slowed movement: Over time, Parkinson’s disease can slow movements, making simple tasks difficult and time-consuming. Your steps might become shorter when you walk. It may be difficult to get out of a chair. You might drag your feet as you try to walk.
>> Speech changes: Speaking softly, quickly, slurring or hesitating before talking. Your speech may be more of a monotone rather than with the usual inflections.
>> Loss of automatic movements: Decreased ability to perform unconscious movements, like blinking, smiling or swinging your arms when you walk.
>> Impaired posture and balance: Stooping, leaning or slouching when you stand, and/or balance problems can all be a sign of Parkinson’s.
Currently, there is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease, but there are a variety of medications that can provide relief from the symptoms. In some later cases, surgery may be advised. Other treatments include lifestyle modifications, like getting more rest and exercise.
For more information, visit the Parkinson’s Foundation at Parkinson.org.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.