How Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Affect the Body and Brain Differently
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are both neurological illnesses. Both diseases are caused by damaged brain cells. Both conditions can involve dementia, as well as depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Both conditions can lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.
While Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s share certain causes and effects, the two diseases are different. They impact the brain and progress in different ways. Both disorders affect people differently, manifest themselves differently, and progress at different rates.
I had a father with Parkinson’s and a mother with dementia. My experience was that the Parkinson’s progressed at a slower rate and was more motor-related than mental.
My father experienced tremors, as well as changes in his walking and facial expressions. But his cognitive ability was relatively intact up to the very last stages of the disease. My mother’s dementia made her feeble and uncertain on her feet, but she remained active and mobile, even as her cognitive ability declined.
What is Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s affects brain cells that produce dopamine, an important brain chemical involving nerve cell communication. Dopamine lives in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, a structure in the middle of the brain that plays a role in reward in movement.
While there can be cognitive issues associated with Parkinson’s, there are usually more physical issues. These can include tremors, changes in posture, as well as changes in walking patterns and facial expressions.
Parkinson’s disease causes problems with motor coordination, especially initiating movement, consecutive movement, and slowness of movement. The brain circuit controlling rhythm and movement gets derailed by Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s symptoms tend to develop slowly over the years. There are “five stages” of Parkinson’s, ranging from mild to more pronounced. Stage One does not interfere dramatically with a person’s daily life. In Stage Two, tremors and movement issues become more pronounced.
In Stage Three,or the “mid-stage”, balance becomes an issue, falls are common, and getting dressed may be a challenge. A person with Stage Four Parkinson’s should probably not be living alone, as it becomes difficult to stand and live a fully independent life.
Stage Five is the most debilitating stage. At this point, my father was confined to a wheelchair and my mother was a full-time caregiver. It is at this point when non-motor skill symptoms start to manifest themselves such as hallucinations, delusions, and dementia.
While there is no “cure” for Parkinson’s, it is considered a highly treatable condition. With proper diagnosis early on, many Parkinson’s patients continue to lead productive, self-sufficient lives for many years.
Parkinson’s Doesn’t Always Cause Dementia
While cognitive decline is common in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it is less likely to occur in Parkinson’s patients. According to studies, only half of those with Parkinson’s develop cognitive difficulties. This can range from mild forgetfulness to full-blown dementia.
When dementia does manifest itself with Parkinson, it occurs in the “subcortical” area of the brain. Alzheimer’s dementia occurs in the “cortical” area of the brain. As a result of this, the clinical symptoms of these two dementias can be somewhat different.
Parkinson’s Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Dementia
According to experts, Parkinson’s dementia can cause impaired physical activity and impacts motor skills. Two neurotransmitters (chemicals produced by brain cells) called dopamine and serotonin tend to be damaged by Parkinson’s.
In addition to causing issues with movement and coordination, this form of dementia can also cause a slower thought process and memory problems. This is usually less pronounced however, until the later stages of the disease.
With Alzheimer’s, two types of proteins in the brain, tangles (tau) and plaques (beta amyloid), accumulate and kill brain cells. This Alzheimer’s-induced dementia affects memory, clear thinking, language skills, and orientation. It reduces comprehension, learning capacity, and judgement. Storing new information and memory retrieval are impacted more than motor skills.
Distinguishing between these neurodegenerative conditions is important to determine the best treatment approach. Medications for one of condition might create problems when given to a patient with the other condition.
7 Ways to Decrease the Risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
There is currently no “cure” for either disease. Parkinson’s is considered a more treatable condition, however, especially in the early stages of the disease. Treatments include medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications such as dietary changes. Research continues to suggest that a brain-healthy lifestyle can help prevent both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's. Here are some basic guidelines:
- Adopt a healthy diet with good nutrition. Brain-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean or “DASH” diet have proven to make a difference. Diets with fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, beans, fish, poultry and dairy can protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, and promote cognitive health. By reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, these diets promote cognitive health. They can mitigate the risks of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Stay away from processed meats, butter and heavy cream, saturated fat. Too much sugar is also dangerous. Sugar is an inflammatory that can also lead to unhealthy weight gain.
- Fitness and exercise. At least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, 3-4 days a week, is considered a preventative measure. Build physical activity into the daily routine. It doesn’t have to be high impact; it can be walking, riding a stationary bike, or swimming.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Seven to eight hours of sleep every night is recommended. Clinical studies have shown that insomnia and sleep quality can have a dramatic impact on the brain and overall well-being, and that sleep problems can contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease
- Control stress and hypertension. Stress can cause vascular dementia and create other health risks. Keep hypertension under control and protect against cognitive decline. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can all help. So can quiet time in a garden or listening to soothing, relaxing music. Emotional well-being enhances physical well-being.
- Engage in social interaction. Experts believe that social engagement promotes healthy longevity and can help prevent many diseases. Interacting with family and friends, participating in community activities, and taking a class can all keep the mind engaged and is nurturing on many fronts. Being alone and reclusive can cause depression and also lead to cognitive decline.
- Ensure mental stimulation. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is always important. Reading books, doing crossword puzzles and other brain games, and playing card games are all stimulating activities. If the brain is active, it isn’t as likely to atrophy. An active mind and an active body help keep the brain healthy.
- Music therapy. The power of music in dementia care has long been thought to promote wellness and healing and to help manage stress. Listening to music, singing, even dancing or just tapping the feet and clapping the hands can be emotionally and physically rewarding. Music therapy has shown to help those with Parkinson’s as well.
Caring for Someone with Parkinson’s
Practice patience and understanding when dealing with Parkinson’s. You may be very frustrated and challenged as a caregiver, but those with Parkinson’s are just as frustrated. Their physical and mental conditions can be debilitating, depressing, and humiliating.
Diet and nutrition can have a huge impact on the health and comfort of a Parkinson patient. Eating well, getting more rest, sleeping well, fresh air, and exercise can make a difference. Getting the right medication and complementary therapies is also important.
As Parkinson’s impacts a patient’s motor skills, modifications to the living environment may have to be made to accommodate wheelchairs and limited mobility issues. Professional in-home assistance for Parkinson’s can allow Parkinson patients to remain independent and can enhance quality of life.
Most importantly, seek help and support from family, friends, and caregiving support groups. Take advantage of the resources in your community. Shouldering all the burden can take a toll on a caregiver.
Take care of yourself or you won’t be able to take care of your loved one. Follow the preventive advice provided above for yourself as well, and take deep breaths!