Young Onset Parkinson's Disease

Children and Young Adults

Parkinson’s disease is traditionally thought of as a condition which only strikes the elderly but young people can be affected too, although the number of cases is relatively few.

The average age for the first sign of symptoms is generally around 60 but it is thought that around five to 10% of people with Parkinson’s are under the age of 45. Doctors call this “young onset Parkinson’s”.

Parkinson’s disease can present a bewildering number of symptoms which can also be found in other conditions. It’s important that doctors rule out other causes in young people before diagnosing a chronic long term illness.

Generally the disease presents itself as it does in the elderly but young people with Parkinson’s will have special concerns. Having to deal with the disease at a much younger age and for far longer means they’re likely to be worrying about the future of their jobs, families and social lives. All kinds of difficult adjustments may have to be made.

These worries can lead to the knock on effect of a younger person becoming withdrawn and depressed about what the future holds. An estimated one third of those with young onset Parkinson’s disease suffer from depression.

When a young person is diagnosed with the disease it’s vital that they not only receive the right medical treatment for their symptoms but also emotional and psychological support to help them enjoy life as fully as possible.

Generally speaking, young people with Parkinson’s tend to have a smoother ride as far as the physical side of the disease goes. The disease has longer to develop and symptoms tend not to be as severe as those in the elderly. Certainly they progress far slower. This could be down to the fact that a young person is on the whole healthier and generally doesn’t have other medical conditions related to old age.

Young Onset, the Symptoms and Treatment

Other ways in which the illness differs in young people is that one of the first symptoms is dystonia – this is­ when a limb uncontrollably stiffens or draws upwards. Leg or foot dystonia is particularly common affecting about 50% of diagnosed young people.

Tremors, which are one of the first signs of Parkinson’s in the elderly, are less common although still troublesome when they occur. Cognitive problems such as memory loss and dementia and loss of balance and co-ordination are also less common in young Parkinson’s disease sufferers.

Treatment for young onset Parkinson’s is generally the same as for the elderly although young patients are regarded as a better choice for new surgical techniques and medicines because they don’t have other age related problems and they have a longer life ahead of them.

The most commonly prescribed medicine is levodopa. This drug has a significant effect on symptoms and results can be seen within days. But in younger people the adverse side effects of the drug are rapid, far more so than in the elderly and can bring about involuntary movements (known as dyskinesias).

The reason why some young people develop Parkinson’s disease is unknown. Just as with Parkinson’s disease in the elderly, researchers believe there could be a genetic predisposition to the illness or it may be due to environmental factors and certain toxins.

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