Being diagnosed with a progressive illness such as Parkinson’s disease (PD) is never easy. Yes, there are challenges ahead, but knowledge on how the disease progresses will empower you.

As a progressive, slowly developing illness, Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen over time and can make aspects of your life difficult.

That said, PD is not life threatening, since the average life expectancy of a person with PD is generally the same as for people who don’t have the illness.

PD is a chronic and progressive movement disorder that occurs when vital nerve cells in the brain called neurons malfunction and die. Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the area of the brain that controls coordination and movement.

As Parkinson’s progresses, the brain produces less dopamine, which leaves a person unable to control movement normally.

The symptoms of PD, level of impairment and the way it progresses can vary widely from person to person. Some people live for many years with very little disability, whereas it progresses faster in others, making it difficult to perform daily movement functions like walking, talking and swallowing.

The World Parkinson Coalition estimates that Parkinson’s affects between seven to 10 million people worldwide, mainly affecting people at around age 62. When someone is diagnosed with PD before the age of 50, it’s called young-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Even though there’s no cure yet, most people with PD can live productive lives for many years after diagnosis with the right medication.

What the future holds

Neurologists (doctors that specialise in diagnosing and treating disorders of the nervous system) use a variety of assessments to determine how Parkinson’s progresses. Remember that not even an expert knows exactly what the future holds for an individual with PD.

In the early stages, tremor (subtle trembling) may be the first symptom. Tremor may be barely noticeable and only affect one limb (e.g. your leg or arm) or one side of the body.

Remember, your early symptoms may be different. For example, you may experience a feeling of weakness or stiffness in one limb, or simply find it difficult to brush your teeth, write or shave properly. Your neurologist or movement-disorder specialist will usually start you on medication as soon as symptoms begin to affect your ability to work or do daily activities.

As the illness progresses, the tremor may spread to both sides of the body. You may have impaired balance and posture, but even though PD may affect some of your daily routines, you’re likely to remain physically independent.

The late stages of PD may be associated with increased muscle stiffness and tremor, cognitive impairments and other complications such as falls, pneumonia and choking. Late-stage PD may result in a decreased quality of life. You may be unable to perform daily movement functions such as driving or getting out of bed without assistance.

It’s not easy to cope with the symptoms of PD and changes in your lifestyle, but remember, there’s help out there. If you’re struggling to cope emotionally, consider joining a support group or going for individual counselling. There are a host of professional PD organisations that provide valuable information and advice to help you and your family with all aspects of the illness.

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