Although they offer theories, doctors are not sure what causes Parkinson’s and at present there are no known cures. Some suggest there may be genetic factors, while others suggest there may be environmental triggers, and now some are saying there may be genetic precursors triggered by environmental factors.
Regardless of what begins the onset of Parkinson’s, doctors do know that whatever triggers the disease there is a loss of dopamine producing brain cells. Dopamine is a chemical that relays messages to parts of the brain that control movement.
Symptoms of Parkinson's disease may vary from person to person. Common symptoms may include tremors, slowed movements, rigid muscles, impaired posture and balance and a decrease in the ability to perform unconscious movements, including blinking, smiling or swinging one’s arms when walking.
Additional problems that may accompany Parkinson’s include thinking difficulties, depression and emotional changes, sleeping issues, bladder problems, constipation, and sexual dysfunction.
There are 50,000 to 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s diagnosed each year, usually affecting older adults around the age of 62, but young-onset can be found in people under the age of 50.
Perhaps the most noted individual diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is award winning TV and movie star Michael J. Fox, who is best known for the TV shows “Family Ties” (1982-1989) and “Spin City,” from which he retired in 2000.
Diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease in 1991, Fox disclosed his condition in 1998, at which time he dedicated himself to a campaign for increased Parkinson’s research. In 2000 he established the Michael J. Fox Foundation to raise money for research and public awareness.
Medical treatment for Parkinson’s addresses symptoms and therapy includes general lifestyle modifications. In severe cases, surgical therapy may offer some relief.
Usually patients are given medications that reduce symptoms by either enhancing natural dopamine or mimicking it.
Because the cause of Parkinson's is unknown there are no known preventatives, although research suggests that caffeine may reduce the risk of developing Parkinson's disease. Green tea may also reduce the risk.
Healthy lifestyle changes are recommended and include eating s nutritionally balanced diet that provides nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, eating foods high in fiber, and drinking plenty of fluids.
Daily life activities such as walking with care and avoiding falls can be enhanced with physical therapy and occupational therapy can help with daily living activities, such as dressing, eating, bathing and writing.
Another important way to help is to become part of a Parkinson’s support group.
In Alabama there are 13 support groups but there is only one in Talladega and St. Clair counties — “Shake, Rattle an Roll” in Sylacauga.
Members of the group travel from Alexander City, Alpine, Anniston, Childersburg and Talladega to join Sylacauga members at First Baptist Church in Sylacauga every second and fourth Monday at 10 a.m.
Formed in April 2005 by Sylacauga resident Peggy Hayes, Shake, Rattle and Roll was established for members with Parkinson’s and their families to share, learn and support one another. Meetings include programs addressing Parkinson’s issues or a time for the group to share information about medications and doctors, or simply share some of the issues they are addressing.
Twenty-three members of the support group met at Buttermilk Hill restaurant in Sylacauga Friday to enjoy a meal hosted by Teva Pharmaceuticals.
The Israel-based industry produces and markets a variety of specialty medicines, including Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
Teva brought movement disorder specialist Dr. Michelle Brewer to the meeting so she could inform the group about the latest developments in Parkinson’s research. She works with the University of Tennessee’s hospital in Knoxville.
Brewer said years of research have revealed some important facts that may impact the development of early detection screening.
Brewer said that by the time most people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s, they have already lost up to 70 percent of their dopamine production.
“If we could develop early screening at the 20 percent level, with medication we could slow the symptoms,” she said.
Brewer said that vigorous exercises have been discovered to help with muscle flexibility and chemicals produced by exercise help reduce symptoms.
She stressed that a recumbent stationary bike allows riders to sit in a position while providing back support. She also recommended Tai Chi, dancing, stretching, yoga and other exercises.
Carolyn Goza facilitates the meetings. Her husband, O’Neal, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1994 and lived with it for 17 years before succumbing to complications indirectly associated with the disease.
Goza said her husband’s first noticeable symptom was pill-rolling. He worked as a welder and doctors said his case may have been related to the fumes produced in welding.
The Gozas were able to enjoy traveling for a while until his symptoms began to deteriorate. “Traveling became very stressful,” Goza said.
She said her husband began to hallucinate, and the way they learned to cope with their situation was by learning to laugh. “He’d make a funny motion and we’d both laugh,” Goza said.
She said the support group became very important to her and her husband.
“Some people don’t want to be around others with Parkinson’s,” Goza said. “They see symptoms they don’t have and don’t want to accept it, but everyone is not the same.
“We found that when you are confronted with others’ symptoms you see how they are dealing with it,” she said. “You just keep moving and learn more about it.”
Goza said an important benefit she and her husband received from the group was fellowship and she stressed how important it is for family and friends to remain supportive.
Alpine resident Michael Williams began attending the support group when someone approached him at Hardee’s. The individual asked if he had Parkinson’s and then told him about Shake, Rattle and Roll.
Williams said the first symptom he noticed was he wasn’t picking one of his feet up when he walked and slid it across the floor. He said his first thought was that he had a sciatic nerve problem.
Then Williams began noticing tremors in his left arm.
“I’d reach back for my wallet and wonder, ‘Why is my wallet stuck?’” he said.
Williams was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005. He was able to continue his job as an insurance adjuster until receiving disability retirement last year.
Williams said he is fortunate that he can still work in the yard. “I cut grass with a riding mower,” he said, “although it takes me longer.”
Williams’ wife of 40 years, Linda, said her main concern is the couple’s future. She battles with health issues and said she is scared of the future.
“I’ve had my head in the sand and pretended it’s not happening,” she said.
“My fear is becoming totally bedridden and unable to move,” Michael Williams said. “Changes are coming.”
A valuable lesson he said he has learned is how important chemicals are. “They affect everything we do whether we think so or not.”
Although generally a private person, Williams said he enjoys attending support group meetings. “This is part of my life and I don’t mind sharing.”
Linda Williams said living with her husband has its challenges. She said one night she was sitting with him on the coach. “It was like sitting on a trampoline,” she said.
Both said that it is important to have a sense of humor. He said he jokes about his condition. “What else are you going to do, curl up in a ball?”
More information about Parkinson’s disease can be found by visiting the Parkinson Association of Alabama website and information regarding Shake, Rattle and Roll can be found by calling Carolyn Goza at 256-245-6739.