Parkinson’s Disease or Normal Aging? Research is Ongoing
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), over 60,000 people yearly are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) in the United States. However, the number may actually be higher. It is easy to confuse early symptoms of Parkinson’s with some aspects of the natural aging process. Knowing the difference between Parkinson’s disease and the natural process of aging can be challenging, especially considering that Parkinson’s is commonly diagnosed around age 60 or later.
As we age it is normal to wonder whether symptoms like pain, stiffness, and memory or thinking problems are due to old age or something else, like PD. Before Parkinson’s is formally diagnosed, many people, their families, and doctors attribute slower walking, arthritic pain or stiffness, falls, and memory loss to aging. Though these symptoms are often signs of aging, they could also be signs of PD. If you or a loved one are having concerns of impaired physical or mental symptoms of aging and possibly PD, consult your doctor.
To help start the conversation with your medical provider, begin with an increased awareness of your or your loved one’s symptoms. Tracking symptoms using a diary or calendar will help you and your provider differentiate between PD and aging. Here are some early and common signs of PD:
PD tremor is typically present when the arm or leg is at rest. Tremors in the hands, arms, feet, mouth, and chin are the most recognized symptoms of PD. Anxiety, sleep disturbances and depression can also worsen or increase the prevalence of PD tremor.
Slowing of movement with age is not uncommon. Slowness on one side of the body more than the other is unusual and often a sign of Parkinson’s disease. In PD it is commonly noticed when putting on clothes, buttons, doing chores and other daily activities begin to take longer than before. With natural aging this happens over decades, but those with PD notice the slowness getting worse over only several months or a year or two.
Muscle stiffness in the limbs, back, and neck are common in those with Parkinson’s. These symptoms are also similar to those of arthritis, yet arthritis often involves the joints in the knees, hips, hands, and back. PD aches and stiffness typically affect the muscles, commonly the shoulder, arm or hand. PD pain can also come from dystonia; muscle contractions that lead to an abnormal position, such as inward turning of the foot, numbness or tingling.
Difficulty Walking, Lack of Coordination, Balance and Falls
Changes in walking such as decreased speed, instability and coordination while waking or standing happens normally with aging. For those with PD balance and coordination can seem especially difficult, like having trouble moving from sitting to standing positions, random or unexplained loss of balance, problems getting up from a chair, tripping, and dropping things. Shuffling gait, reduced swinging of one arm while walking, and episodes of the feet being stuck to the floor while walking are common signs of PD.
Memory, Concentration, and Thinking Problems
Memory and other brain functions such as decision-making, planning, organizing, and understanding may not be as sharp as one ages, but these issues also can be impacted by PD. A trained movement disorders specialist (Neurologist) or Neuropsychologist can perform neuropsychological testing and identify cognitive issues, determining if these characteristics are due to PD or another condition, like dementia. While dementia is rarely an early sign of Parkinson’s, it is not uncommon for those with PD to develop as they age. Hallucinations may be a sign of a type of medical problem that resembles Parkinson’s disease called Lewy Body Dementia.
Most people experience an occasional restless night or trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, but consistent trouble sleeping, and/or your sleep being interrupted by sudden movements during sleep, might be due to PD.
Knowing the difference between Parkinson’s symptoms and the normal signs of aging could be life-changing for you and your loved one. If your doctor diagnoses Parkinson’s disease ask for a specialist to help manage the condition. Current medical treatments have revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. With the correct diagnosis and treatment those with Parkinson’s disease may experience years or decades of improved health and longevity that was not possible in the past.
Research is ongoing. If you are interested in participating, call Inland Northwest Research at 509-960-2818 and go to inwresearch.com/research-studies. To learn more about Dr. Aldred’s Neurological & Primary Care, Testing and Treatments go to selkirkneurology.com
by Jason L. Aldred, MD, FAAN, Selkirk Neurology and Jill Ciccarello, Inland Northwest Research
Dr. Aldred, co-founder of Selkirk Neurology in Spokane, is a board-certified neurologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (FAAN). He completed neurology residency at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), serving as neurology chief resident. He then completed an additional two-year clinical research fellowship in Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders at the Parkinson’s Disease Research, Educational, and Clinical Center (PADRECC), a collaborative program between the Portland VA and OHSU. Dr. Aldred also completed formal training in clinical research through the Human Investigators Program (HIP) at OHSU focused on design and execution of clinical trials.
Dr. Aldred provides diagnosis and treatment for all neurological conditions, with a special interest in Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. He conducts clinical trials for a variety of neurological disorders through funding sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Patient Centered Outcomes Research Initiative (PCORI), as well as other sources. These research activities are conducted through Inland Northwest Research, a collaboration between providers and trained staff currently integrated into the Selkirk Neurology clinic.
Jill Ciccarello is a native of the northwest currently residing in Spokane. She has been working in biomedical research for the past 16 years. Jill has experience with federally and privately funded research programs. Before coming to Inland Northwest Research, she spent 4 years as a Subject Matter Expert and Science Officer for the US Medical Research and Materials Command, working primarily in Neurological Research, including Parkinson’s, TBI, PTSD and Alzheimer’s