The Parkinson’s Mystery

Around 2% of people over 65 develop Parkinson's disease, but its causes remain a mystery. One promising area of research is focusing on environmental and occupational exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and solvents, which may combine with a genetic predisposition to the disease.

JOHANNESBURG – Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder that affects around seven million people globally, and one million in the United States alone, usually afflicting people older than 50. The disease strikes 2% of those over age 65, and 5-10% of cases occur in people under 50. The cause remains unknown, preventing us from arresting the disease’s development – though environmental and occupational factors loom large in recent research.

Chinese and Indian texts from 1000 BC appear to describe a similar affliction. But James Parkinson was the first to describe the disease in detail, in 1817. Those developing Parkinson’s suffer slow movement, tremors, stiffness, difficulty walking, and gait instability. As the disease progresses, it may affect thinking and can also cause behavioral and psychological problems, including dementia, sleep disturbances, and depression, as well as low blood pressure. Though many of these symptoms can be ameliorated, therapeutic efficacy often wanes over time.

The symptoms result from the loss of brain cells generating the neurotransmitter dopamine. Many studies demonstrate that these cells’ degeneration is preceded by cell loss in other brain regions, and even nerve cells in the gastrointestinal system. This occurs decades before symptoms of motor impairment develop.

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