Each year, 50,000 to 60,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. The onset of Parkinson’s is a long-term lifestyle change, as the disease affects almost every aspect of day-to-day life and can last over 20 years. Doctors and researchers are still searching for a cure, but effective treatments can slow the progress of the disease and improve a patient’s quality of life. Here is a basic guide to understanding Parkinson’s disease:

Parkinson’s disease takes its name from 19th century scientist James Parkinson, who  first described the illness. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system in which dopamine cells in the brain are destroyed. Dopamine helps control muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease most often develops after age 50, affecting men and women.

Symptoms and diagnosis
There are four cardinal symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which are shaking or tremors, slow movement (also known as bradykinesia), stiffness or rigidity in the trunk or limbs, and difficulty balancing. There are also a number of secondary symptoms, such as small handwriting, muffled speech and loss of facial expression. Most doctors will diagnose Parkinson’s with the help of the United Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), which is a comprehensive measure of Parkinson’s symptoms. To view a sample UPDRS, visit the Movement Disorder Society’s website. An individual who experiences many but not all of these symptoms may have Parkinsonism. Most people with Parkinsonism have Parkinson’s disease, but Parkinsonism can also have other causes such as head trauma or another neurodegenerative disorder.

The exact cause of Parkinson’s is not yet known, although researchers have a few hypotheses. Genetic mutations and environmental causes, such as exposure to toxins, appear to contribute to the cause of Parkinson’s. The disease also seems in part caused by a number of abnormal chemical levels in the brain, most notably low dopamine. Dopamine acts as one of the brain’s primary messengers, and many dopamine-producing cells die as Parkinson’s disease progresses. It remains unclear what sets off this dopamine destruction, but there are a number of known risk factors. The primary risk factor is age. With the rare exception of young-onset Parkinson’s, people diagnosed with the disease are typically middle age or over. Additional risk factors include a family history of Parkinson’s, regular exposure to toxins and gender. As reported by the National Parkinson Foundation, men are twice as likely to have Parkinson’s than women.

There is no known cure to completely erase the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Nonetheless, there are therapeutic treatments designed to help treat symptoms and maintain a high quality of life. Parkinson’s-specific medication reduces muscle rigidity, improves speed and coordination and decreases tremors. The drug Levodopa alleviates symptoms by creating more dopamine, the chemical messenger in the brain that has been decimated by Parkinson’s. Alternate medications mimic the effect of dopamine in the brain. For cases when medication is ineffective, a surgeon may perform deep brain stimulation by implanting a neurostimulator. The neurostimulator creates electrical pulses that block abnormal neural messages. Whether medical or surgical treatment is used, a comprehensive program for people with Parkinson’s can also include support groups or physical, speech and occupational therapy.