Fears COVID will accelerate Parkinson's epidemic

Today is World Parkinson’s Day, a day to recognise the devastating impact the disease has on so many people.

According to Parkinson’s NSW, each day in Australia 37 people are told they have Parkinson’s and more than six million people worldwide are living with the debilitating impact of the disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects motor control, mood and state of mind. Symptoms typically include slow movement, muscle rigidity, instability, tremors, depression and anxiety.

Read: Berries and red wine linked to longer life for Parkinson’s sufferers

It’s estimated the number of people in Australia living with the disorder is between 84,000 and 212,000, but that number is expected to rapidly rise.

Kevin Barnham, from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, said he believed a “silent wave” of neurological illness would follow the COVID pandemic.

“Parkinson’s disease is a complex illness, but one of the causes is inflammation, and the virus helps to drive that inflammation,” he told the ABC.

“Once the inflammation gets into the brain, it starts a cascade of events that can ultimately lead to Parkinson’s disease.”

Dr Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and author of Ending Parkinson’s Disease believes “we’re on the tip of a very, very large iceberg”.

He says Parkinson’s is already the fastest-growing neurological disorder in the world and that over the next 25 years it will double again.

A Parkinson’s diagnosis can occur at any age, but is most common in those over 65.

Diagnosing the disorder can be difficult, particularly in the early stages. There is no one single definitive test for Parkinson’s, rather a diagnosis will involve physical and neurological examinations conducted over time to assess changes in reflexes, coordination, muscle strength and mental function.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s and its underlying cause is still unknown, although it is believed genetics plays a large role. Researchers are also increasingly interested in how environmental exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) – a chemical compound used in industrial degreasing, dry-cleaning and household products such as some shoe polishes and carpet cleaners – contributes.

Treatment is mostly aimed at reducing the severity of symptoms.

Read: The home therapy that can help Parkinson’s sufferers

Most pharmaceutical treatments focus on increasing dopamine levels in the brain, as well as anticholinergic drugs to help control tremors.

There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to improve Parkinson’s symptoms including eating a high-fibre diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and grains. Exercise is also important as it helps build muscle and prevent wastage.

Researchers from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, in conjunction with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, are recruiting 10,000 participants for the Australian Parkinson’s Genetics Study, one of the largest studies into Parkinson’s ever conducted.

Read: Billy Connolly: I don’t want to be on stage with Parkinson’s

“The [study] aims to crack the genetic code of Parkinson’s by helping to identify the hundreds of genetic variants that influence a person’s risk of developing the condition and its various symptoms” the researchers say.

“This will enable the development of new, and more effective, and more personalised treatments for the disease.”

Participants will be asked to submit a saliva sample and complete a 25-minute online questionnaire about your experience with the disease, family history, medical history, lifestyle and environmental risk factors.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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