04/08/2016 01:28 EDT | Updated 04/09/2017 05:12 EDT

Are You At Risk For Parkinson's Disease?

Caring hands of a nurse and doctor for elderly patient with Parkinson's disease.
Attila Barabas via Getty Images
Caring hands of a nurse and doctor for elderly patient with Parkinson's disease.

April is Parkinson's disease (PD) awareness month, a time to learn about this illness and to be aware of the estimated seven to ten million people that wake up everyday to face the challenges of this incurable, progressive illness. And these challenges include motor symptoms like tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement and loss of balance. It also includes a whole spectrum of other nonmotor symptoms such as mood changes, constipation, pain, and sleep disorders to name a few.

Unlike other diseases where potential causes are known (for example smoking and lung cancer), the exact reason why some individuals develop PD remains elusive. There are likely many factors at play including genetics and environmental triggers. What is clear is that Parkinson's is a disease that knows no boundaries on the basis of age, race, religion or geographical borders. Although it can affect anyone, there are however some trends that can be seen when looking at the Parkinson's population.

Sex: Parkinson's does have a gender bias. Men are approximately 1.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than women.

Age: Like with many diseases, getting older is a risk factor. Parkinson's disease ranks among the most common late-life neurodegenerative diseases, affecting approximately 1.5 per cent to 2.0 per cent of the population older than the age of 60 years. To a lesser extent, young onset Parkinson's (before age 40) occurs in five to 10 per cent of people diagnosed with PD while 20 per cent of those affected are under the age of 50.

Ethnicity: Caucasians are more likely to develop Parkinson's disease compared to individuals with African or Asian ancestry. Also people of two particular ethnic backgrounds, Ashkenazi Jewish and North African Arab Berbers have significantly high numbers in their populations with this disease.

Geography: Taking into consideration ethnicity it makes sense that globally the prevalence of Parkinson's disease is lower in Asia and Africa compared to Europe and North America. In the US, there are more cases concentrated in the midwest and northeastern states.

Heredity: The vast majority of those with Parkinson's have no family history of the disease. For some however, genetics plays a role with approximately 10 per cent of people affected with PD having a first degree relative (parent, sibling or child) that is also living with the disease. A recent large - scale study by NIH (National Institute of Health in the U.S.) recently identified 26 genetic risk factors that increase an individual's chance of developing Parkinson's disease. But even if you have one of those genes that put you at risk, you will not necessarily develop Parkinson's. It's simply an increased risk compared to the general population.

Environmental Toxins: Exposure to a number of pesticides and herbicides including commonly used Paraquat and Rotenone have been shown to be toxic to the brain when an individual is exposed to them repeatedly and for a prolonged time, resulting in a higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease. In those that are genetically susceptible, the chances of developing Parkinson's may be increased two to six-fold. Industrial solvents such as TCE (Trichloroethylene) and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) have also been shown to be associated with the development of Parkinson's disease in individuals who have had long-term exposure.

Head Trauma: Research studies support the observation that head injuries, particularly those that involve a concussion or loss of consciousness may increase

the incidence of Parkinson's. This risk seemed sustained over several years meaning that in a patient with PD, their personal history of head injury could be years prior to their symptoms developing.

With the exception of factors in our environment, very little can be done to change many of the risk factors that seem to exist for Parkinson's disease. However this information is still important in the world of scientific research. If researchers can figure out why certain characteristics or situations put people at risk for developing PD, it may give them insight into potential causes of the disease itself. And this would be helpful for all those affected, one step closer to finding that elusive cure.

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