Facts About Parkinson’s Disease

What is Parkinson’s disease?

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disease that impacts the nervous system, affecting a person’s movements and many other aspects of their daily lives.

But what is it really?

Everyone has cells in the brain called neurons and each of these neurons has neurotransmitters—or chemicals—that allow information to be passed between them. Neurons that use a neurotransmitter called dopamine are especially affected by PD. These dopamine neurons play an important role in the nervous system’s ability to coordinate movement, and when enough of these cells stop working properly, or if enough of them die, PD motor symptoms develop.

What are the symptoms of PD?

Symptoms usually begin gradually—often starting with a slight tremor in just one hand. Since PD is a movement disorder, symptoms often appear as tremors, slowness, and stiffness. As the illness progresses, walking and balance problems often occur.

However, PD varies from person to person, with each individual experiencing the disease and its symptoms differently. Some people develop non-motor problems such as constipation or loss of smell sensation, sometimes years before the movement problems appear.

Does PD only affect motor skills?

No! In addition to affecting movement, people living with PD also experience many other symptoms. It’s estimated that more than 50% of people living with PD also live with depression and 40% of people with PD also have anxiety. Other common symptoms of PD include:

  • Psychosis
  • Constipation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Erectile dysfunction for men; low sex-drive or painful sex for women
  • Incontinence
  • Excessive sweating

For a complete list of symptoms related to PD, visit the MGH website.

Who develops PD?

An estimated 1 million people in the United States are currently living with PD and more than 10 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the disease.

PD generally develops in middle or late in life, with the risk of developing increasing with age. The average age of onset for PD is 56.

Though this is considered an older person’s disease, approximately 10% of those diagnosed with PD are 50 years old or younger.

Although genetics plays a role in some cases of PD, for most people having a close family member with PD only marginally increases your risk of developing the disease.

Indeed, a majority of PD (about 90%) has no no identifiable cause and is called “sporadic.”

Men are twice as likely to develop PD as women.

Research indicates that an ongoing exposure to herbicides and pesticides may slightly increase your risk of PD.

How is Parkinson’s disease diagnosed?

There are no blood tests, MRIs, or CT scans that can accurately diagnose PD. Individuals who are exhibiting early signs of the disease should see a physician, who will look for four classic symptoms:

  • Tremors
  • Rigidity in the wrist and elbow joints
  • Slowness of movement
  • Unstable posture

What are the treatments for PD?

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for PD, but researchers are working each day to discover one. Right now, there are medications that can help reduce the disease’s symptoms. Some individuals may also be candidates for deep brain stimulation, an FDA-approved surgical therapy that involves implanting an electrode into a targeted area of the brain. This procedure can help people with medication-resistant tremors and other symptoms that do not respond adequately to medication alone.

Why is it called Parkinson’s disease?

PD was named for the British surgeon, Dr. James Parkinson, who first described it as a distinct disease in 1817. His essay on “the Shaking Palsy” was the first to identify the condition that would later bear his name as not part of normal aging.

    Where can I find resources for PD?

    There are a number of great online resources for more information about Parkinson’s disease.


    Stay Updated!

    The search for effective treatments for Parkinson’s disease is ongoing. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest advances.

    Related Content

    Personalizing Stem Cell Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease

    In the U.S. alone, as many as one million people have Parkinson’s disease. Kwang-Soo Kim, PhD, is committed to finding a way to lower those numbers.

    First-in-Human Therapy With Stem Cell-Derived Dopaminergic Progenitor Cells for Parkinson’s Disease

    MGH-McLean team have become the first to implant patient-derived midbrain dopaminergic progenitor cells into a patient with Parkinson’s.

    Patient-Derived Dopamine Neurons Show Promise in Parkinson’s Treatment

    A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the innovative treatment of a Parkinson’s disease patient.