What are some early signs of Parkinson's disease?

Parkinson's disease is a progressive degenerative disorder of certain brain cells. The disease affects movements of the body, and is associated with other problems, including dementia — many individuals experience a decline in cognition that develops at least a year after diagnosis.

According to the Parkinson's Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disorder each year and, by 2020, nearly 1 million people in the U.S. will be living with it. 

The incidence of Parkinson's increases with age, but an estimated 4 percent are diagnosed before age 50. Additionally, men are 1.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson's than women.

Typically, symptoms of Parkinson's start gradually with a barely noticeable tremor on one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also causes stiffness in the body, arms and legs. Stiffness mostly concentrated in the shoulders or hips is often seen as an early sign of Parkinson's. Difficulty with balance and falls are also part of the disorder, and the person might begin stooping, leaning or slouching while standing or walking.

Difficulty in sleeping is another symptom of Parkinson's, especially when the person experiences sudden movements during sleep or becomes very restless and even acts out dreams while being in a deep sleep.

Loss of smell could be another sign of Parkinson's. Individuals might have difficulty in smelling certain foods such as dill pickles, bananas or licorice.

A change in voice and facial features are also signs of Parkinson's. For instance, if the person starts talking very softly and/or sounds hoarse, this could be an indication of the disorder. Facial features can change in such a way that the person displays a serious, mad or depressive expression.

Though constipation is often a recurring problem in aging adults, straining frequently during a bowel movement could be an early indication of Parkinson's — a symptom that should not be ignored.

A significant change in handwriting — letters become smaller and words are crowded together — could be a sign of Parkinson's called micrographia.

Parkinson's is an extremely diverse disorder, and, like Alzheimer's disease, no two people experience it in the exact same way. A Parkinson's diagnosis is usually first made by an internist or family physician, with additional opinions from a neurologist and/or a movement disorder specialist.

Those diagnosed with Parkinson's should work with his or her doctor to create a healthy plan of nutrition and exercise. A physical therapist and speech therapist should be involved in the continuum of care, as well as a social worker to guide through the disease process, providing resources and information on the availability of support services.

Questions about Alzheimer's disease or related disorders can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC, at thememorywhisperer@gmail.com.