Parkinson’s Disease: The World’s Fastest Growing Brain Disease

In 2017 I noticed my father in law had started to get tremors in his hands.

Back then I didn’t know much about Parkinson’s Disease as most of my focus on Brain health had been on Alzheimers Disease and Dementia after my father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia in 2015.

I knew enough however to know that there was a good chance these tremors were neurological and could be early signs of Parkinsons.

The little knowledge I did have was limited to following high profile people like Michael J Fox, Muhammad Ali and Katharine Hepburn and their experiences living with the disease.

Unfortunately, my father in law was finally diagnosed with Parkinson Disease in 2022 so I now know a whole heap more about this debilitating Brain disease.

One of the challenging things about Parkinsons is it is hard to diagnose. There is no defining test you can take to determine if you have the disease and doctors rely on observing symptoms over time and seeing how patients respond to various medications.

By the time most people have enough symptoms to get a diagnosis much of the damage in the Brain has already occurred.

This was certainly the case for my father in law.

What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?

People experience physical challenges like tremors to the hands, arms, legs, jaw or head, muscle stiffness, slowed movement and compromised balance and coordination.

They may also experience impairment in cognitive function and have problems with memory, attention and ability to plan and follow through on tasks.

What is happening is the nerve cells of the Basal Ganglia part of their Brain are dying off and this is the part of the Brain where Dopamine, an important neurotransmitter and hormone is created. It is this lack of Dopamine that creates the symptoms in the physical body and the cognitive impairment in the Brains ability to function properly.

Once most people are diagnosed 60% of their Dopamine producing cells have died off so most medication is aimed at increasing Dopamine and helping to control the physical symptoms like the tremors and muscle stiffness.

There is no doubt that the money that has been raised for research by people like Michael J Fox has certainly gone a long way over the past ten to twenty years to lift the profile and improve understanding of Parkinsons, how to treat it and what may cause it.

Until now however Parkinson’s Disease has very much taken a back seat to more common Brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  

Well, it looks like that is about to change.

According to the WHO, over the past 25 years Parkinson’s Disease cases have doubled and it is now the fastest growing neurological disease in the world today, second only to Alzheimer’s in case numbers.

So what is driving this increase in Parkinson’s Disease?

Genetics does play a role in some cases however like many chronic illnesses we are experiencing today, while genetics may make us more susceptible it is the impact of our environment and how we live that makes us more vulnerable to developing the disease.

An increase in funding for research over the past 20 years has identified four key environmental and lifestyle drivers:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury – as in the case of Muhammad Ali
  • Occupation
  • Area of residence
  • Exposure to certain toxins like metals, solvents, pesticides, and herbicides

This toxin is Tricholroethylene (TCE) which is used to decaffeinate coffee, degrease metal parts and dry clean clothes.

TCE was first linked to Parkinsons back in 1969 and while its use is banned in western Europe it continues to be used widely in industry, commercial and military settings in the USA and Australia.

This study found people who had been exposed to TCE had a 500% increased risk of developing Parkinsons and there was often a 40 year time lag between exposure and the onset of Parkinsons symptoms meaning exposure could have occurred decades before in childhood or even invitro.

The frightening thing is you do not have to have direct exposure to TCE to be affected. TCE can contaminate the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the water we drink and has been found  to enter homes, workplaces and schools undetected.

The good news is the findings of this latest study look like they will be the catalyst for change.

In 2016 the Australian Department of Veteran Affairs formally recognised the link between exposure to TCE and the development of Parkinsons in one of its former servicemen, based on evidence from the 2011 study.

This decision could have far reaching effects across industries and the government as both individual and group class action claims are made by people whose health has been affected by exposure to TCE.

Remember you do not need to have direct exposure to TCE for it to affect your health. If you think you or someone you know has had exposure to TCE through their occupation or living environment, be proactive and seek help to find out all you can about the exposure and options for managing or removing the risk.

In addition to managing and removing the risks of exposure to toxins like TCE there are a number of other things research has shown can help with managing Parkinsons or manage the risk of getting Parkinsons.

  • High intensity exercise has been shown to be very important. It brings oxygen to the Brain and helps your body with strength, balance and mobility.
  • Eat a diet rich in protein and the amino acid Tyrosine which will help to increase Dopamine and feed your Brain and your body what it needs to stay healthy. Tyrosine can be found in almonds, bananas, avocados, eggs, beans, fish, chicken and dark chocolate.
  • As far as toxins go it is not just TCE that we need to be aware of. Unbelievably some of the chemicals they use to create Parkinsons in laboratories are used on our vegetable gardens as herbicides and pesticides. Go green and clean with what you eat. Grow your own or buy local and spray free if possible. If you can’t, wash your fruit and vegetables with vinegar or baking soda and water and get to know the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.
  • Learn to love your Brain, it runs your life. Look after it. Avoid contact sports and if you do have a Brain injury take the time to let it heal.

So how is my father in law going?

My parents in law have just returned to Christchurch after spending two lovely weeks with us on the Sunshine Coast. This is their first trip overseas since 2019 when they were last here pre Covid.

There is no doubt that Parkinson’s Disease is having quite an impact on my father in law’s body and Brain, making the trip “across the pond” far harder than it was four years ago.

It is hard to tell whether the medication is helping that much with the tremors and balance but what is helping is the exercise program he is now enrolled in back home. It is critical that he keep moving his body and working on his balance.

My family and I have had many conversations trying to work out what factors could have contributed to my father in law’s Parkinsons.

As far as we know there is no genetic link that may have made him more susceptible to the disease which leaves us with the following thoughts:

  • My father in law worked as a customs officer in NZ for much of his working life. This involved a lot of time on the docks or in the bowels of ships where TCE would almost certainly have been used. He was also required to examine incoming goods that may have been sprayed with various insecticides or pesticides.
  • Stress has been shown to exacerbate and contribute to all Brain diseases including Parkinsons. In 2011 my parents in law lived through the Christchurch earthquake and for years after lived in an earthquake ravaged city that continued to experience after shocks. During this time we saw my father in laws health deteriorate.
  • Then there was Covid. Not only did this pandemic add to their stress it slowed down access to health care and a potential diagnosis and treatment for my father in law.
  • Lastly there is the issue of exercise. While my father in law was active he was never a big exerciser, particularly not high intensity exercise and once he retired he slowed down even more.

While significant money and research is required to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease the good news is progress is being made.

Research suggests that to a large extent this disease is preventable and as with many other chronic diseases that affect us today the increase in cases can be attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in our modern world.

As I sit here writing this blog,  I wander how long it is going to take for the Australian Government or the various industry groups that still use TCE to take note of the evidence that links TCE to Parkinsons and ban it.

The more awareness we can create around this issue the better.

As a Brain Health Coach I help people create healthier brains through changing how they live and what they eat. I also provide small group coaching and training for corporations who are interested in helping their employees create healthier Brains and living healthier lives.

Want to know how I can help you or your employees create a healthier brain?

Find out more about my Brain Health coaching programs here

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