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Parkinson's Disease is On the Rise

 Over the years, overall health has improved drastically. We have seen revolutions in pharmacology and medical technology, better nutrition, and also improvements in public healthcare. All of this promises a longer, healthier future for our global population. However, this prosperity does come at a cost. Age-related neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, threaten to affect more of us than ever before. Consequently, this has set the stage for an unprecedented medical challenge. 

Patrick Brundin, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Parkinson's Disease says "By 2040, we can truly talk about a pandemic that will result in increased human suffering, as well as rocketing societal and medical costs." In his article, Brundin highlights what we are in for in the coming decades. He predicts that current Parkinson's figures will double, if not triple over the next 20 years.

This problem is not just limited to Parkinson's disease. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are also expected to skyrocket with our aging population. This occurs as more of us survive long enough to see our aged bodies burdened with conditions few once lived to endure. 

A big part of the problem arises due to the lack of knowledge about how many such neurological conditions develop in the first place. Parkinson's became known in the early 19th century, when an eminent British surgeon named James Parkinson outlined the characteristics of this degenerative disease in his treatise, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy. 

Today we know that the symptoms of trembling extremities, impeded mobility, rigidity, and mood changes are linked with the loss of dopamine-producing tissues deep inside one of the brain's control centers, called the basal ganglia. An estimated 6.1 million people across the planet had Parkinson's 'shaking palsy' disease, more than double 1990s figures. 


Reduced production of dopamine isn't considered to be deadly, but the overall loss of function, combined with the general senescence that comes with growing old - produces an average life expectancy of just seven to 14 years beyond diagnosis.

Records show that today, roughly around 200,000 individuals could be expected to die prematurely each year due to a result of having the condition. But, what's more worrying, is that in another twenty years, the estimated number of people who could have the condition could be as high as 12 million. 

Evidence shows that Parkinson's starts with changes in gut microbes that usually break down a diverse mix of pesticides, medications, and pollutants in our environment. But it doesn't just end there. There's another paradoxical factor at work, which is expected to drive the number up to as high as 17 million.

More than 50 years ago, researchers observed a strange link between tobacco use and Parkinson's. The relationship is especially evident today, as it is confounding. The risk of the disease drops by 40% among long-term smokers. The mechanism behind this relationship is indeed a mystery, primarily when given the broad range of health risks that are known to come with cigarettes. Of course, it is not advised that you take up smoking as a result!

As depressing as the news may seem,  researchers claim that acting now can help ensure those numbers don't get so high. After all, society has successfully confronted pandemics of polio, breast cancer, and HIV to varying degrees in the past century. 

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