Janet Reno, the country’s first female Attorney General, passed away yesterday from complications of Parkinson’s disease, at age 78.
According to statistics from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, approximately 1 million people in the United States are affected by the disease. While there is no test for the disorder, and no concrete, tangible cause, scientists uniformly believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors lead to Parkinson’s.
The disease is a progressive and chronic movement disorder, which involves the malfunction and gradual death of the brain’s vital nerve cells (neurons). The neurons that produce dopamine—the chemical that communicates with the segment of the brain that controls coordination and movement—regularly decrease; as the levels of dopamine lessen, a person becomes unable to normally control movement. As the symptoms worsen, the primary motor signs of Parkinson’s include body tremors, bradykinesia/slowness of movement, rigidity, and severe postural instability.
While the NIH has not yet identified a cure for Parkinson’s, scientists and doctors have found several ways to help patients cope with and alleviate symptoms, including various medications that help trigger the brain and create more dopamine, and deep brain stimulation. A recent study conducted at Harvard found that patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s demonstrated significant improvement after they had transplanted tissue from fetal dopamine cells into their brains.
There is a remarkably strong correlation between ageing and Parkinson’s; most clinical research suggests that advancing age is the biggest risk factor. As the second most prevalent age-related neurodegenerative disease, after Alzheimer’s, it is incontrovertible that the social, economic, and public health impacts that result from Parkinson’s will continue to increase directly alongside the population’s longevity.
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