Parkinson's disease is a disease of the brain. Certain nerve cells, called neurons, in the substantia nigra (a part of the brain) produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine performs a very important function within the body. It allows for the brain to control muscles so muscles move smoothly. It is responsible for coordination and function of the muscles and movement. In patients with Parkinson's, these nerve cells become impaired or die. When 80 percent of these nerve cells die, Parkinson's symptoms begin to appear. While Parkinson's can severely impact quality of life, shortens lifespans, and may ultimately lead to a condition that causes death, Parkinson's itself is not fatal.
Effects of Parkinson's
Parkinson's has many effects on the body. When 80 percent of the nerve cells in the substantia nigra are no longer producing the required dopamine, Parkinson's begins to have a marked effect on the body. Patients will typically experience tremors or shaking. They may be stiff, have difficulty balancing and be unable to move quickly. They may be unable to fully control their facial expressions or speak clearly. These effects can often lead patients to also become depressed.
Progression of the Disease
Parkinson's is a progressive disease. The effects may be mild at first, impacting only one part of the body (often tremors in the hand are one of the first signs of Parkinson's). These symptoms begin to become worse overtime. Tremors become more noticeable and range of movement becomes more limited. Movements become slower and are characterized as bradykinesia, which refers to slow movement. Patients will eventually become unable to walk, move, bath or dress themselves, or even turn over in bed. Speaking may become difficult and patients will begin to communicate slowly in a monotone voice. Handwriting also becomes tiny and hard to read. Although the progression of Parkinson's is normally relatively slow, it varies by patient.
Parkinson's itself is not a fatal disease. Patients may become severely incapacitated and unable to move or care for themselves within 10 to 20 years of diagnosis, but the disease itself will not cause death. Once the symptoms begin to arise, however, they will typically not go away and the disease will only continue to get progressively worse until a patient is incapacitated.
Causes of Death Related to Parkinson's
Although Parkinson's is not fatal, certain symptoms may eventually lead to incidents which are fatal. Difficulty swallowing caused by Parkinson's can lead to aspiration of food in the lungs. This may cause pneumonia or other fatal pulmonary conditions. A loss of balance can also cause a fatal fall.
Treatment of Parkinson's
Parkinson's is not curable. Medications are used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson's rather than the underlying disease. Medications attempt to mimic dopamine in the body, which can temporarily improve or alleviate some of the symptoms. Surgery can also help to ease symptoms of Parkinson's, but because it is not a cure and because of the dangers associated with brain surgery, surgery is often undertaken once all other methods of dealing with symptoms have failed.