We talk about Alzheimer’s a lot. We do it as a society. We do it here at Constitutional Health too. But although it may be the most talked-about—and probably the most frightening—it’s far from the only chronic brain disease. Multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, ALS and other degenerative brain diseases are equally devastating. They just destroy in different ways.
One of the most common of these is Parkinson’s disease. It’s actually the second most common neurodegenerative disease. Like Alzheimer’s, it affects millions. Like Alzheimer’s, it kills brain cells and leads to loss of function. Sometimes, like Alzheimer’s, it leads to dementia.
Like Alzheimer’s, there is no cure. And although it really hit the public consciousness when actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed while only in his late twenties, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s usually affects people over 50.
Unlike Alzheimer’s, there are treatments for Parkinson’s. Nothing stops the disease. There is no cure, and treatment becomes less effective as time goes on. But it can be slowed down. And the earlier it’s detected the more effective treatment is.
Unfortunately, Parkinson’s disease is very difficult to diagnose. A person may be suffering early symptoms for years before they seek treatment. Even then it may take many months and many thousands of dollars before they are diagnosed.
Diagnosing Parkinson’s is a slow game of trial and error and ruling out other causes for symptoms. Often by the time it’s diagnosed the disease is well advanced and large regions of the brain are already damaged. There’s just no single test that detects it.
Or at least there wasn’t.
That may have changed. Researchers have discovered that a simple eye test might catch Parkinson’s while it’s still in the early stages. This could allow early treatment. It could save patients’ thousands of dollars and months of frustration. But most of all, it could add functional years to their lives.
Here’s what makes Parkinson’s disease so bad
Parkinson’s disease is very common. In fact, you’ve probably known someone with the disease whether you realize it or not. It affects one person out of 500—and men get it much more often than women. Unlike Alzheimer’s, which attacks the memory portions of the brain first, Parkinson’s disease interferes with movement.
It generally begins with a tremor on one side of the body. Usually this is in a hand or foot. Often it’s a single finger. It can happen anywhere, to any body part, and it’s often overlooked or dismissed as unimportant.
What happens is that the body part in question will shake any time it isn’t actually being used. A person’s hand might tremble slightly unless they’re actually gripping something. A foot might tremble unless the person is flexing or extending it. A facial muscle might twitch constantly while their face is at rest.
As the disease progresses, the shaking gets worse and worse and affects a larger area. Eventually it spreads to the other side of the body and can make daily activities such as dressing or eating difficult or even impossible.
Parkinson’s affects the ability to move in other ways. It makes muscles become stiff and inflexible, limiting movement. It interferes with the ability to make repetitive motions. This can make normal activities like buttoning a shirt, writing, and even walking difficult or impossible.
It interferes with the ability to initiate and to stop movement. Once a limb is in motion, there’s no problem but lifting a foot to take a step or reaching out a hand to grab something or stop a fall becomes more and more difficult. It also causes “freezing,” where the sufferer is unable to make a move at all—this may be for a split second, or for several seconds.
Parkinson’s also affects balance. Whether we realize it or not, simply standing upright requires constant adjustment. Each moment we spend upright, our muscles are making tiny subconscious movements to keep us from falling over. Parkinson’s patients’ muscles lose this ability and even the slightest jostling may cause a fall.
All this combines to effectively “trap” Parkinson’s sufferers in their own bodies. People with advanced Parkinson’s disease may be wheelchair-bound and unable to care for themselves for years, their minds completely intact but unable to control their bodies. In its own way, Parkinson’s is just as terrible as Alzheimer’s.
Early treatment can slow the progression of the disease significantly. However, the early symptoms are so subtle that they’re very easy to miss or to put down to other causes.
That’s where the new test comes in.
This test could catch Parkinson’s before symptoms even appear
The new test isn’t just another “screening” test. It could tell you for sure—and years before you show any symptoms—that you do in fact have Parkinson’s. Not that you might. Not that you’re “at risk” for it. No. This test would let your doctor actually diagnose Parkinson’s without the months of trial and error. It would let you start treatment before the damage to neurons is too widespread and loss of function starts to occur.
And here’s the really amazing thing: it doesn’t take any special tools. It doesn’t involve pricey MRIs or other imaging techniques. In fact, it uses standard optometry equipment. It could be done in any eye doctor’s office.
That’s right. Researchers at University College London found that a simple, non-invasive eye test could do what no one has managed to do before: predict and diagnose Parkinson’s disease before it’s too late.
The test—which so far has been performed only on rats—involves shining a light into the back of the eye and looking at the retina. Specifically, looking for swelling in the area and for cell death among a type of cells called retinal ganglion cells. The researchers found that these two markers together predicted Parkinson’s an amazing 40 days before traditional symptoms occur.
This may not sound like much, but when you consider that the typical lifespan of a rat is only 2-3 years, 40 days is a very long time. It’s the equivalent of some ten years in human terms. That’s nothing short of remarkable. Ten years could be the difference between a long and productive life or being wheelchair-bound and dependent.
Although it has yet to go through clinical trials in humans, this technique has already been tested in people with glaucoma. Clinical trials for Parkinson’s are on the horizon, and other researchers are preparing to run clinical trials to see if it can predict Alzheimer’s disease too.