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Understanding Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia

Posted by The Brickmont Assisted Living Team on Sep 15, 2023 8:00:00 AM | 7 minute read

Understanding Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia_Brickmont Assisted Living

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition that develops over time in different stages. Known most for its association with motor skills, which can lead to tremors and slowed movement, many people don’t realize there is a strong link between Parkinson’s and dementia that can affect cognitive abilities.

About half of those with Parkinson’s will be affected by some form of cognitive impairment. As the disease progresses, people living with Parkinson’s will develop more severe memory and thinking problems. This is where Parkinson’s relation with dementia begins. 

Unfortunately, one risk factor for Parkinson's disease is age. Although most people with Parkinson’s first develop the disease around 60 years old, about 5 to 10 percent of those with Parkinson's have "early-onset" disease, which can begin before the age of 50. 

While Parkinson’s disease and memory loss may not be commonly associated with each other, recent studies have shown that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of those with Parkinson’s may develop a form of dementia.

Brickmont Assisted Living believes educating the public on senior health conditions is important. For this reason, we want to explain and provide an understanding of Parkinson’s disease and its relationship with dementia and memory loss.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that occurs when nerve cells in an area of the brain that controls movement become impaired and/or die. Typically, these nerve cells produce a brain chemical known as dopamine. 

When less dopamine is produced in the brain, the absence of the chemical makes it difficult for the brain to coordinate muscle movements and leads to mobility problems. Unfortunately, researchers still do not know what causes these cells that produce dopamine to die. 

Due to these changes in dopamine levels, early symptoms revolve almost entirely around movement, including shakiness, tremors, stiffness, difficulty initiating movement, and a lack of facial reactions due to loss of control of the muscles. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, it can begin to affect other parts of the brain and cause other mental functions to decline, such as memory loss. 

The stages of Parkinson’s disease vary from person to person, but in 1967, Margaret Hoehn and Melvin Yahr published a defined scale of five stages of Parkinson’s, which created a better assessment of the disease. 

Clinicians still use the Hoehn and Yahr scale during clinical trials to describe how motor symptoms and cognitive decline progress. This scale is used with the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale, a rating tool that gauges the severity of the disease within a patient. When combined, these two measurement tools help to create a better assessment of cases of Parkinson’s disease that can determine the severity of a person’s case, the progression of the disease, and how medications and therapies can be used to decrease a person’s symptoms.  

Here is the scale, which details the typical patterns of progression that help define each of the stages: 

  • Stage 1 - During this stage of the disease, most symptoms are considered mild. The person can experience movement trouble or tremors on only one side of their body.

  • Stage 2 - The severity of the symptoms will increase. Tremors, muscle stiffness, and movement troubles will begin to affect both sides of the body.

  • Stage 3 - This stage is considered the mid-stage. Loss of balance and slowness in movement are both prevalent during this stage; however, a person in this stage can remain independent.

  • Stage 4 - During this stage, the symptoms start limiting independence. It may still be possible for a person with stage four of Parkinson’s disease to stand, but walking may require assistance.

  • Stage 5 - During this stage, the person is typically unable to move without full assistance and may experience memory or behavioral changes. This is the typical stage where Parkinson’s and dementia are closely tied together.

What’s Parkinson’s Disease Dementia?

It’s important to note that the term “dementia” itself is an umbrella term, which describes multiple conditions, each with different symptoms, that affect memory, behavior, and other cognitive abilities that can take a toll on a person’s ability to maintain their daily functions and activities of living. 

That being said, dementia is not a single disease, which is a common misconception. Instead, think of dementia as a wide range of medical conditions. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, with over 6 million Americans living with the disease, but there are many other kinds of dementia-related diseases that you might not have heard of before. Here are just a few examples:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies
  • Frontotemporal Dementia
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease

As you can see, there are many types of dementia, each with unique symptoms and characteristics, and every type affects the mind differently. 

Parkinson’s and Dementia

When it comes to Parkinson’s and dementia, the fundamental brain changes linked to Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia are abnormal microscopic deposits composed primarily of alpha-synuclein (a protein that is abundant in the human brain). These deposits are called “Lewy bodies” after Frederick H. Lewy, M.D., the neurologist who discovered them during the early 1900s.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Lewy bodies are also found in several other brain disorders, including Lewy body dementia (LBD). Evidence suggests that Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease dementia may be linked to the same underlying abnormalities in the brain processing of alpha-synuclein.”

A Hopeful Future

As with other forms of dementia, we do not fully understand the cause or have a known cure for Parkinson’s disease or Parkinson’s disease dementia. It’s been suggested that genetic and environmental factors can play a role in each case, although there is still some debate on each. In fact, many studies have given some explanations to consider. 

For example, studies have found that people who carry small variations in genes are more likely to develop Parkinson’s, and people who have been exposed to certain pesticides have been associated with an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s. Another environmental factor that has been linked to an increased risk of developing the disease is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which can lead to a wide range of neurological disorders. 

However, researchers are working hard to develop a cure and better understand how the condition works and how we can prevent it. There are also many notable therapies and medications that those living with Parkinson's can take to manage their symptoms. While these therapies and prescriptions won't eviscerate the disease altogether, they can certainly make many positive changes to help people continue living their everyday lives with lessened symptoms. 

One of the main therapy treatments for Parkinson’s is called levodopa, which nerve cells use in order to make dopamine to replenish the brain’s declining supply of the chemical. Many people take levodopa alone with carbidopa, which prevents or reduces some of the negative side effects of levodopa therapy, such as nausea, low blood pressure, and restlessness.

Doctors might also prescribe other medicines to treat Parkinson’s, like enzyme inhibitors, which increase the amount of dopamine produced by slowing down the enzymes that break down dopamine in the brain. Amantadine is often prescribed to help reduce any involuntary movements or tremors, and anticholinergic drugs can help reduce muscle rigidity. 

Some other practices that can help to manage Parkinson’s include:

  • Yoga and Tai Chi: help to increase stretching and flexibility.
  • Massage Therapy: reduces muscle tension.
  • Physical, Occupational, and Speech Therapies: can assist with voice disorders, tremors, rigidity, and decline in cognitive abilities.

One of the major driving forces for Parkinson’s disease research comes from The Michael J. Fox Foundation, started by actor Michael J. Fox. 

Fox discovered that he had Parkinson’s disease after developing a tremor in his finger while filming a movie. A consultation with a neurologist revealed that he had young-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29 years old. His foundation has funded over $1.75 billion in Parkinson’s research since its inception in 2000, several years after his public announcement that he was diagnosed with the disease, and is the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease development. 

While we may not have a cure, we do have methods of care that seek to provide support and a stable environment for those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or memory loss. Brickmont Assisted Living offers assisted living and memory care options at our senior living communities throughout Georgia.

Our Silver Linings memory care program provides those living with dementia the comfort and security of a warm environment, with friendly faces and a specially-designed atmosphere. We understand that memory loss and dementia affect everyone differently, so our program creates care plans based on the unique needs of each resident’s past interests, passions, abilities, and care needs. At Silver Linings, we provide everything your loved one needs to celebrate every single achievement and enjoy days full of engagement and compassion. 

If you have any questions regarding Brickmont Assisted Living or would like to learn more about our services, please contact one of our senior living experts.

Updated September 2023


Topics: Memory Care, Health

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