Women and Parkinson’s

My mother has Parkinson’s.  I never knew such a disease existed until I came to North America when I learned that Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with it.  Other famous people who had it were Pope John Paul II and Hitler.  I have seen people with tremors but like Katherine Hepburn they may have had  what is known as Essential Tremor.  If you have tremors, don’t panic.  See your doctor.  It may not be Parkinson’s.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

It was was first founded by Dr. James Parkinson of London who was a physician that described the neurological disease in year 1817. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time.

Parkinson’s involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain, called neurons. Parkinson’s primarily affects neurons in the an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a cgsfffhemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As PD progresses, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally. 

What causes Parkinson’s and who gets the disease?

There is evidence to suggest that some people may have a genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s, but there is no clear evidence to suggest that it is hereditary. Other risk factors that have been identified are head injury, direct occupational pesticide exposure and the age-related loss of brain cells that transmit nerve impulses.

Despite popular belief, Parkinson’s is not found only in the elderly. As many as one out of five Parkinson’s cases are found in people under 50 years of age.

Parkinson’s is one of the most common neurological disorders and affects one out of every 100 adults in Canada. Parkinson’s affects men and women equally and the disease crosses all ethnic lines.  Nearly one million people in the US are living with Parkinson’s disease. The cause is unknown, and although there is presently no cure, there are treatment options such as medication and surgery to manage its symptoms. 

What are its symptoms?

The symptoms Parkinson’s disease is been classified into two primary and secondary Parkinson’s disease. The patient of Parkinson’s disease may not show all symptoms and the progress of this disease differs from person to person. Parkinson’s disease in most of the people is found over the age of sixty years. However, there have been many cases identified in men and women of young age.

It affects the movements, muscle functions, memory, mood, energy and sometimes pain can occur. These are the common symptoms found in Parkinson’s disease.

The primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are named as bradykinesia, tremors, rigidity and poor balance. The symptom bradykinesia causes sluggishness in several voluntary movements like sitting down, standing up and walking. This is because of the delayed communication signals that are received by the muscles from brain. This creates difficulty for the patient to initiate walking.

The second symptom in primary Parkinson’s disease is the tremor that causes opposition to movements when the limbs are at rest and normally occurs in fingers, foot, chin, hands, forearms and mouth.

Rigidity causes stiffness in muscles and produces pain in muscles with an increase in pain when there is any muscle movement.

Another primary Parkinson’s disease symptom is poor balance in which the patient loses the reflexes that help posture and sometimes leads to falls because of unsteady balance.

The secondary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are many in numbers and every patient may have a different type of symptom though all of these symptoms stated below may not be present in a patient. The physical symptoms that are observed in Parkinson’s disease are difficulty in swallowing, constipation, excessive sweating, choking or coughing, excessive salivation, loss of bowel or bladder control and dry skin on face or scalp. The mental symptoms are depression, anxiety, loss of intellectual ability, cramped handwriting soft voice and slow responses.

My mother experiences the tremor of the hands.  She moves slowly and sometimes she freezes.  She has fallen a couple of times which causes great concern for us because she is in her eighties.  Today I learned that she fell yesterday before supper as she was changing her clothes.  The nurse said she seemed okay.   My sister has repeatedly told her to buzz for help.  I guess my mother still can’t get used to being so dependent on others.  A few days ago she told me how frustrating it is not being able to move about as she would like.  

I feel sad whenever I think of how active she used to be.  Now she has to depend on others to help her to do so many things that she used to be able to do herself–like getting up from a chair or going to the bathroom or changing her clothes.  She didn’t send out any Christmas cards because of her handwriting.  It has become difficult for her to write legibly.  She uses a cane.  On Christmas Day, her three and a half year old grandson was eager to help her get up from the sofa.  She was touched by his thoughtfulness.

I hope and pray that one day there will be a cure for Parkinson’s.  I read that fish oil may protect against it.  An omega-3 fatty acid has been found to prevent the misfolding of a brain protein resulting from a gene mutation in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, according to new research.  The study was conducted by Dr. Nicolas Bazan from LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans and presented on April 19, 2009 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition and Experimental Biology.  “These experiments provide proof that neuroprotectin D1 can be applied therapeutically to combat various neurodegenerative diseases,” says Dr. Bazan.  “[It also] provides the basis of new therapeutic approaches to treat patients with disorders characterized by this mutation like Parkinson’s, Retinitis Pigmentosa and some forms of Alzheimer’s disease,” he adds.  If you don’t get enough fish oil from your diet, nutritional health supplements may be a good alternative.

It is also believed that naturally produced Estrogen can help to protect women from Parkinson’s Disease.  Women who have more years of fertility (the time from first menstruation to menopause) have a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease than women with fewer years, according to a large, new study by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. 

The study found that women who had a fertile lifespan of more than 39 years had about a 25 percent lower risk of developing Parkinson’s compared with women who had a fertile lifespan shorter than 33 years.  In addition, the data showed that women who had four or more pregnancies were about 20 percent more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than were women who had three or fewer pregnancies. “One explanation for this finding is that the post-partum period, which is typically one with lower levels of estrogen, subtracts from a woman’s total fertile lifespan,” says co-author Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and population health and the principal investigator of the WHI study at Einstein.

Dr. Saunders-Pullman also found that women who were taking hormone therapy did not have a lower risk for Parkinson’s.  In fact, earlier studies in the Women’s Health Initiative have demonstrated that hormone therapy increases one’s risk for both stroke and dementia.  More research needs to be conducted to determine estrogen’s effects on the brain.

How does one cope with Parkinson’s?  Here are some helpful tips:

Positive/Hopeful Attitude – you can’t control the disease but you can control your attitude.  Don’t let the disease define who you are.  Focus on the positive things in your life.  Think about the things you are grateful for each day.  Avoid self-criticism.

Exercise – Exercise has been found to be very helpful in minimizing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, increasing mobility and improving quality of life. It can also be very emotionally beneficial. It has been found to help in improve a depressed or anxious mood.  Try exercises that will relax you and improve your flexibility and balance.

Support Groups – It always helps to connect with other people who know exactly what you are going through.  This will prove to be very helpful in coping. Support groups offer a safe place to talk about your feelings, questions and concerns and to get valuable information. There are many available Parkinson’s support groups in the community that are free of charge.

Take Care of Yourself – Apart from taking medication to keep the disease under control, there are other things you can do to help yourself such as diet, exercise, support of family and friends and a healthy attitude. Be good to yourself, be patient with yourself and be a friend to yourself.

If you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and haven’t told your children as yet, Michelle Lane is an advocate and Founder of the Parkinson’s Association of Louisiana has some tips which may help you:

1. Explain your diagnosis in simple terms, including the symptoms and what behaviors to expect.

2. If you have more than one child, you may want to initially talk with them one at a time.

3. Be prepared to answer basic questions, such as if the diagnosis is fatal, if PD is contagious and if your child will get PD.

4. Encourage your child to ask questions, and be prepared for some of them to be of a sensitive nature.

5. Set up a visit for your child with your neurologist to talk about the disease and what to expect.

6. Let your kids know that there will be some changes in daily living and that working as a team will help your family.

7. Explain that people may stare at you because of the disease, and that it is usually because of curiosity and not rudeness.

8. Talk about how your kids can explain the disease to their friends if they ask about it.

9. If your child has a particularly difficult time dealing with your diagnosis, ask your child’s doctor to recommend a therapist who specializes in helping children whose parents live with a disease

My sisters and I were upset when we first learned that our mother had Parkinson’s.  Her sister was in denial at first but we have come to terms with it and are doing what we can to help her through this.  I receive the e-Parkinson Post, an online publication of the Parkinson’s Society Canada, which provides information for people living with the disease and those who want to learn more about it.  You can read the article on Genetics and Parkinson’s in their December issue here

This year the Parkinson SuperWalk 2011 raised an impressive $2.79 million. About 14,000 people brought life to 95 communities across Canada to raise funds for education, support, research and advocacy on behalf of the over 100,000 Canadians with Parkinson’s.  One year I hope to participate in this event.  Until then, I will continue to learn what I can about this disease so that I can become more involved.  If you know someone with Parkinson’s, I encourage you to educate yourself about the disease.  The more you learn about it, the more you can help your loved one and the less frightening it becomes.  There are many resources out there.  You can start with the Parkinson Society Canada.  Parkinson Society Canada seeks to ease the burden of people living with Parkinson’s disease through support and education. They provide information to people with Parkinson’s, their family members, and caregivers as well as health professionals.  Check out their website.  There is a lot of information that you might find helpful such as what it is like for a person living with the disease, the progression of the disease, how it affects their sexuality, treatment and how to communicate effectively with someone with the disease.

Here are some suggestions on how you can help someone with Parkinson’s and their caregiver:

  • You can be supportive.  Ask the person how he or she is feeling and encourage a truthful answer.  Help them to relax in your company.  Don’t try to cheer them up.  It’s okay for them to grieve.
  • Offer to lend a hand to the person with Parkinson’s or the caregiver but be specific with the day, time and task. For example, offer assistance with housework Saturday morning or grocery shopping every other Wednesday. 
  • Take the person with Parkinson’s out to visit the museum or get new glasses. This way the person with Parkinson’s gets a new experience and the caregiver gets an hour or two of respite. The Society can provide you with these and other volunteer opportunities.

Find out what you can do to help those with Parkinson’s understand and cope with their disease. 

Sources: http://www.pdf.org/en/about_pd?gclid=CPDt2cikpa0CFWcBQAodaTNAoQ; http://www.betterhealthresearch.com/news/fish-oil-may-protect-against-parkinsons-disease-19130024/; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090225161038.htm; http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Programs-and-Services/Neurology/Treatments-and-Programs/Movement-Disorders-Program/Coping-with-Parkinsons-Disease.aspx; http://www.pdf.org/en/children_cope_pd; http://www.parkinsons.ca/faq.html

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