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Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that causes uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance, according to the National Institute on Aging.
But what do you really know about Parkinson’s and your risk?
Let’s dive into the causes, symptoms, and treatment of Parkinson’s and how it impacts Latinos.
What Causes Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive and chronic nervous system disorder that affects movement and is caused by destroyed nerve cells in the brain.
“A decrease in dopamine levels leads to abnormal brain activity, causing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. However, it is currently unknown what causes the death of neurons in the brain,” according to dementia.org.
While the exact cause of the death of nerve cells in the brain is unknown, scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors contribute to the cause.
Genetics cause about 10 to 15% of all Parkinson’s, the Parkinson’s Foundation reported.
“Parkinson’s is caused by a combination of genes, environmental and lifestyle influences,” according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
What Are the Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease?
Early signs of Parkinson’s can go unnoticed at first or occur gradually, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Four common symptoms are:
- Tremor in hands, arms, legs, jaw, or head
- Muscle stiffness, where muscle remains contracted for a long time
- Slowness of movement
- Impaired balance and coordination, sometimes leading to falls
“People may feel mild tremors or have difficulty getting out of a chair. They may notice that they speak too softly, or that their handwriting is slow and looks cramped or small,” according to the National Institute on Aging. “Friends or family members may be the first to notice changes in someone with early Parkinson’s. They may see that the person’s face lacks expression and animation, or that the person does not move an arm or leg normally.”
Other symptoms may include:
- Depression and other emotional changes
“The symptoms of Parkinson’s and the rate of progression differ among individuals,” according to the National Institute on Aging.
Who Is at Risk of Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease.
With nearly one million people in the U.S. are living with Parkinson’s disease, the number is expected to rise to 1.2 million by 2030, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
The biggest risk factor for developing Parkinson’s is advancing age.
The average age of onset is 60 and men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than women, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“Having a close relative with Parkinson’s disease increases the chances that you’ll develop the disease,” the Mayon Clinic reported. “However, your risks are still small unless you have many relatives in your family with Parkinson’s disease.”
Environmental factors may also cause Parkinson’s disease.
Ongoing exposure to environmental toxins like herbicides and pesticides may slightly increase your risk of Parkinson’s disease.
How Does Parkinson’s Disease Impact Latinos?
Parkinson’s disease may occur in higher rates among Latinos, according to recent research.
For example, one study found that Latino men older than 65 are at greatest risk of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, due to increased life expectancy and exposure to pesticides, PCLA reports. The study also found Latinos and non-Latino Whites are twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as Black or Asian Americans.
A 2021 study analysis found that genetic variations in the gene SNCA are tied to an increased risk of Parkinson’s among Latinos, although Latinos with African ancestry are less likely to develop Parkinson’s.
“The team found that variations in the gene SNCA — that which enables the production of the alpha-synuclein protein that accumulates in toxic clumps inside nerve cells of those with Parkinson’s — were associated significantly with Parkinson’s risk,” according to the analysis.
The biggest problem in fully determining the risk of Parkinson’s among Latinos is the severely low participation of Latinos in clinical trials and genetic research.
Less than 8% of participants in Parkinson’s studies are people of color, PCLA reports.
Despite the importance of research diversity for results to apply to a wide range of patients, the lack of Latinos in genetic research is an issue when it comes to addressing Parkinson’s.
“As we continue our work to gain comprehensive understanding of population-specific [Parkinson’s] genetic architecture in Latino populations, inclusion of Latino [Parkinson’s] patients from diverse ancestral backgrounds, such as those with significant Native American or African ancestries, is a necessity. [Parkinson’s] is a global disease, so it is crucial that genetic studies reflect the wide diversity of patients with [Parkinson’s],” said Dr. Ignacio Mata, co-author of a 2021 study.
Another 2021 study found several barriers causing the lack of diverse research, including lack of awareness when it comes to research opportunities, language and communications issues, and concern that research participation would be costly.
“Physicians need to be aware of ongoing research and should not assume [people with Parkinson’s] disinterest. Including family members and providing research opportunities in their native language can increase research recruitment,” according to the study.
What Are the Treatment Options for Parkinson’s Disease?
There is no cure or standard treatment for Parkinson’s.
But medicines, surgical treatment, and other therapies can often relieve some symptoms, according to the National Institute on Aging.
“There is no one-size-fits all treatment for Parkinson’s. Rather, treatment should be tailored to an individual’s symptoms via a shared decision-making process with your healthcare provider,” according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Treatment could include things like exercise, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech or talk therapy.
“Patients with Parkinson’s disease may also consider healthy life-style changes to help manage certain symptoms as well as improve their outlook and quality of life,” according to dementia.org.
Treatment may also include medications specific to a patient’s needs like medications aimed at improving movement and non-movement symptoms.
“It is common for people with Parkinson’s to take a variety of medications — many at different doses and at different times of day — to manage symptoms,” according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.
Latino Participation in Clinical Trials
It is evident that the growing Latino population warrants the need for Latino representation in clinical research.
While lack of access and awareness to open trials can pose a large challenge, Dr. Amelie Ramirez of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio is creating new ways to encourage Latinos to volunteer for cancer and Alzheimer’s clinical trials, with help from Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.
She is raising awareness by using Salud America! to showcase open clinical trials and uplift the stories of Latino clinical trial participants.
Like Alma Lopez. Alma, who chose to volunteer for a breast cancer clinical trial at UT Health San Antonio, believes participating helped her get better treatment and better long-term health in her survivorship journey.
“Clinical trials are great for finding new treatments that help people,” Alma said. “And it helps the scientists. It gives opportunity to better medication for all populations. It builds a better future.”
Looking for an open trial that is right for you or someone in your familia?
Visit Salud America’s clinical trial page and find ways you can participate.