April is world Parkinson’s month, and with an estimated 80,000 Australians living with the condition, raising awareness of symptoms and available support has never been more important.
Many of us know someone whose life has been changed by Parkinson’s disease. Affecting 4 in every 1,000 Australians, according to https://www.betterhealth.com.au, with more than 2,225 people newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s every year in Victoria alone.
“Parkinson’s Awareness Month is an important time of year for us,” says Steve Sant, CEO of Parkinson’s Australia. “It allows people living with Parkinson’s to come together across the country to get education, attend events and take care of one another.”
What is Parkinson’s disease?
According to Parkinson’s Australia, Parkinson’s is a neurological, progressive disease. This means that it affects the brain, becoming stronger over time.
The disease is the result of the steady decline of a special type of cell within a patient’s brain. Amongst other things, these cells are responsible for producing dopamine - a neurotransmitter that is typically associated with movement, attention and learning. When the brain doesn’t produce enough dopamine, it is unable to send clear messages to the body, resulting in the motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Who suffers from Parkinson’s disease?
The condition is most common amongst those over 60, although 20% of cases are amongst the under fifties, and many people in their thirties and forties are living with Young Onset Parkinson’s.
Traditionally, men have been deemed at greater risk of Parkinson’s than women, but a recent study by the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry suggests that the lifetime risk of developing Parkinson’s is similar across both groups.
Research is ongoing to establish why certain people suffer from the condition. This includes investigating possible genetic or lifestyle factors like diet and smoking. However, there is no known cause for the disease to date, and it is not thought to be hereditary. Ultimately, Parkinson’s is a disease that can affect anyone.
How is Parkinson’s diagnosed?
It is very difficult to diagnose Parkinson’s disease. There isn’t one blood test or brain scan that can provide total confirmation. Instead, patients need to discuss their symptoms with specialist doctors who can help to piece together a diagnosis.
What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
There is a broad spectrum of symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease. A patient might experience one, two or a range of symptoms. “Patients with Parkinson’s disease can be like chalk and cheese,” says Steve Sant. “Symptoms vary a great deal, which is why education about the motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s is so important.”
To be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, you usually need to display two of the following three Parkinson’s Disease symptoms:
- A tremor, which usually begins as a slow, steady shake
- Bradykinesi, which means slowness of movement
- Muscle rigidity, usually when bending or straightening limbs
There are a wide range of non-movement related symptoms that are also associated with Parkinson’s disease, from fatigue to gastrointestinal issues, to issues with vision or sense of smell.
For a full list of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, visit the Parkinson’s Australia website. Speak to your local GP if you are concerned.
How is Parkinson’s disease treated?
Patients with Parkinson’s tend to be treated on an individual basis – there isn’t one sweeping medication or therapy that eases symptoms for everyone, nor is there a ‘cure’ for Parkinson’s. However, there are a number of options available to help manage symptoms and improve patient quality of life. These include:
- Medicines in tablet form or delivered intra-venously
- Surgical treatments
- Supportive therapies such as speech, occupational or physiotherapy
“Treatments are available to help with symptoms and need to be designed to suit the individual patient, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to finding a cure,” says Sant. “Parkinson’s Australia is a huge advocate for research into the disease, and we often lobby politicians to shine a greater light on Parkinson’s disease. In fact, we most recently contributed to lobbying efforts that led to the foundation of the Australian Parkinson’s Mission - an innovative research program to help slow and stop Parkinson’s disease.”
How can lifestyle choices help ease Parkinson’s symptoms?
In some cases, exercise can help improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s disease. Fifteen minutes of exercise per day, including stretching and walking can help to improve balance, posture and risk of falling, as well as being a good way to socialise and remain active. Always consult with your doctor before starting an exercise regime – they may even be able to help you plan a routine that suits you.
Living with Parkinson’s
For many people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the future can seem daunting, but there are plenty of Australians with the condition continuing to live life to the fullest.
Gary Latham was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 6 years ago and takes an active role in raising awareness about the condition. “When something like this happens, it’s easy to retreat into yourself,” Gary says, “but since being diagnosed, I’ve challenged myself to get out of my comfort zone and speak in public on a regular basis. I have MC'd events for Parkinson’s Australia & NSW and I have appeared on national television and spoken with politicians at Parliament House since my diagnosis.”
For Gary, the Parkinson’s community is a source of strength: “there’s a sense of fight amongst people with Parkinson’s. One of my favourite projects to work on is It’s Not Funny – a community of people with Parkinson’s disease who come together to tell their stories. It’s a brilliant initiative because it helps raise self-esteem and creates ambassadors for the disease from within our own community.”
“I always try to live positively – it can be easy to slip in to negative thoughts sometimes, but you have to recalibrate your attitude and learn to cope with them.” For Gary, there’s always someone to lean on, “my wife, who has had MS since 1996, has been a fantastic teacher when it comes to having a positive attitude. For anyone who’s not sure who to turn to, I’d recommend getting in touch with It’s Not Funny or Parkinson’s Australia who can offer support and a real community.”
For Michael Wiseman, the first year of Parkinson’s was very difficult. “I noticed that things were going on with my body that nobody could properly diagnose. Eventually I was told I had Parkinson’s disease. To be frank, it had a profound effect on me psychologically.”
Michael sought the help of a counsellor, who helped him find a positive track. “I’m a natural introvert, so it wasn’t in my nature to speak to people. Since being diagnosed, I’ve learned the power of reaching out to the right people for help and support.”
“Another huge part of my life now is running. Exercise is a great way of countering some of the physical effects of Parkinson’s disease, and for the past two years I’ve organised a group to run the City to Bay in Adelaide. We raise awareness – and money – for Parkinson’s disease. My condition means I’m often in pain, so I also completed a chronic conditions course through Macquarie University of to learn how to manage chronic pain.”
Michael is dedicated to giving advice to the Parkinson’s community: “I want to help people with Parkinson’s disease navigate ‘normal life’ like dating with the condition, or signing up to the NDIS. Supporting one another is such an important part of living with the disease.”
How can we support people with Parkinson’s disease and their carers?
Patients with Parkinson’s disease need support from a range of medical practitioners, but they can also require emotional and social support. “Depression is very common amongst people with Parkinson’s disease, since dopamine is a feel-good chemical and this is what patients are lacking,” says Sant. “It’s important for people with Parkinson’s disease and their carers to get the support they need to physically and mentally deal with their condition. There are 320 support groups around the country through Parkinson’s Australia State organisations, so I’d recommend finding the nearest one to you.”
How can TAL Lifetime Protection support you if you were diagnosed Parkinson’s disease?
As always, part of living life to the fullest is knowing that you have the right protection in place. There are many benefits that come with applying for life insurance when you are younger and healthier, such as a better likelihood of a positive application outcome.
TAL Lifetime Protection offers a number of insurance options that can provide cover for Parkinson’s disease. Life Insurance can pay a lump sum in case of death or terminal illness resulting from Parkinson’s disease. Total and Permanent Disability or Income Protection Insurance can provide you and your family with a lump sum or monthly benefits if you are unable to work due to Parkinson’s disease. And, Recovery Insurance can pay out a lump sum if you are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease as defined in the ‘Recovery Insurance Event Definitions’ section of the PDS. To be covered for Parkinson’s disease, when building your cover, make sure you select illness cover for Life Insurance, Total and Permanent Disability Insurance and Income Protection and then critical illness cover under Recovery Insurance. Details about each of these benefits, and their terms and conditions, can be found in the PDS.
To apply for insurance, you will need to answer some questions about your medical history, family medical history, occupation and pastimes. Once you have answered these questions, we can confirm which benefits and options you are eligible for, and whether any special terms or conditions will apply to your policy.
For more information on how we can support you and your family, call us or use our cover builder to find a policy that works for you.
For more information on how to get support for Parkinson’s disease, visit the Parkinson’s Australia website.
If you’re struggling or feeling down, call LifeLine any time on 13 11 14.