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Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder and is estimated to affect some 100,000 Canadians at an estimated cost of $2.5-5 billion annually.
Although the public face of Parkinson’s disease is a disorder causing tremor, the condition has much more incapacitating effects, such as difficulty initiating and sustaining voluntary movement. Patients may have difficulty writing, arising from a chair or from bed, and walking. Swallowing may be impaired and this may lead to difficulty protecting the airway, as well as pneumonia. Cognitive function may be affected, particularly in older individuals with advanced disease.
While Parkinson’s disease has traditionally been regarded as a disease of the elderly, Michael J. Fox has drawn attention to the fact that up to 10% of affected individuals get symptoms prior to the age of 40. The cause of Parkinson’s is unknown. Indeed, work done by researchers at UBC and elsewhere indicates that Parkinson’s may not be a single condition, but rather, may be a group of conditions with different causes, all of which may result in the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells in the the brainstem. It is the loss of dopamine in a discrete area of the brain that results in the symptoms of Parkinson’s. In a minority of patients, genetic factors play the predominant role in the development of Parkinson’s; in others, there appear to environmental factors, the majority of which have not yet been identified.