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Understanding Parkinson’s Disease

Most Americans are familiar with beloved actor Michael J. Fox, star of the television show “Family Ties” and many movies including the “Back to the Future” trilogy. It is also known by many that he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Fox has gone on to found the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has raised over $450 million dollars since its launch in 2000. But what is Parkinson’s disease, and how does it affect a person?

Parkinson’s disease begins when nerve cells in the brain begin to degenerate. A part of the brain called the basal ganglia controls the balance of two substances, acetylcholine and dopamine, which are used to control nerve impulses. Parkinson’s affects the cells that produce dopamine, which, in turn, affects the two neurotransmitters which control body movements.

Parkinson’s symptoms are slight at first, typically a stiffness or weakening of limbs, or a slight trembling of a hand at rest. As the trembling increases, muscles become stiffer and one’s balance and coordination may become affected. As the symptoms worsen further, cognitive and mental and emotional problems may begin as well, including depression.

Although in a majority of cases, the cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, it may be caused by the exposure of toxins such as carbon monoxide, pesticides, mental manganese or through a viral infection. It is not uncommon for Parkinson’s suffers to also suffer other neurological diseases such as Lewy body disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, Huntington’s disease, Wilson’s disease or Alzheimer’s.

Although it typically affects older adults between 50 and 65, it may strike younger adults as well. Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30. Parkinson’s disease is among the medical conditions that qualifies for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.

Source: WebMD, “What is Parkinson’s Disease?” Accessed Dec. 22, 2015