Longer lifespans could cause Parkinson's epidemic, educator says

By Heather Warlick, Staff Writer Published: June 3, 2014
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Scientists are adding about five hours to the average lifespan estimate each day, one expert says. In fact, this is the first time in history the number of older people in the world is growing faster than the number of young people.

Generally speaking, living longer is a good thing. However, our chances of developing a degenerative disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s skyrocket as we get older.

“The older you get, the bigger your risk. It doesn’t ever level off,” said Gregory Petsko, professor emeritus of biochemistry and chemistry at Brandeis University and professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Petsko spoke recently on the subject of Parkinson’s disease to an audience of students, teachers and the public at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics.

By 2050, Petsko and other experts predict a global epidemic of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“As the population gets older and the number of children gets smaller, the number of people with these diseases increases. We have fewer working people to support them; this gets to be a considerable health problem,” Petsko said.

In the next several decades, Petsko estimates there will be up to 32 million people in the United States over the age of 80. Half will have Alzheimer’s and about 3 million will have Parkinson’s.

“No country is spared. This is a universal human affliction,” he said.

The Shaking Palsy

James Parkinson, for whom the disease was named, dubbed it the Shaking Palsy in his 1817 essay on the disease. He was the first to describe the symptoms but erroneously hypothesized the tremors were caused by lesions in the cervical spinal cord.

About 16,000 to 17,000 Oklahomans live with Parkinson’s disease, according to estimates by the Oklahoma chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association. Oklahoma doesn’t have a registry for Parkinson’s, so the estimate is based on frequency in the country. About 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s is a nervous system disorder characterized by tremors, progressive muscular degeneration and muscle stiffness that can lead to immobility. Patients have a severe lack of dopamine in their brains, which can also cause depression and anxiety.

Parkinson’s can affect your speech and cause a host of other problems. Most people don’t die from Parkinson’s, but from complications caused by the disease.

Most Parkinson’s cases are random, Petsko said.

But for 10 percent of patients, it’s inherited.

“You shouldn’t worry about that, even if you have a relative or two who has the disease,” Petsko said. “If you were part of this group, you’d know it because practically everyone in your family would get Parkinson’s disease.”

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