What is your body telling you about the health of your brain?

Scientists know that age is the biggest risk factor for developing brain diseases, like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Today, about six million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s, including 100,000 Canadians and that number is expected to double by the year 2040 due to an aging population.

Many people are aware of the common symptoms of Parkinson’s – tremors, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking and other movement issues. However, every experience is different and there are several lesser-known symptoms and indicators that may appear years or decades before an official diagnosis, such as smell loss, depression, anxiety, fatigue, difficulty focusing and acting out your dreams.

The uniqueness of the Parkinson’s experience and the variety of symptoms can make it that much more difficult for people to receive a diagnosis. This lag not only delays when people start treatment, but it’s estimated that as many as 80 per cent of cells producing dopamine, a brain chemical that fuels movement, mood and more – may be damaged by the time of an official Parkinson’s diagnosis.

So, if you have symptoms, it is important to speak to a doctor. If diagnosed, a movement disorder specialist (a neurologist with additional training in Parkinson’s) can help provide care and develop an individualized treatment plan.

Currently, there is no cure for brain diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or dementia and there are no treatments to slow or stop the progression. However, researchers are working to better understand how these diseases develop, who gets them and why. Today, there are great strides being made.

For example, The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s landmark brain health study, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), has launched in certain cities across Canada. The program aims to rewrite the future of Parkinson’s disease and brain health in general, by better understanding predictors of it. The goal is to help detect the disease earlier and, ultimately, understand it better to find a cure.

While the study is primarily interested in those recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and not yet taking medication, there’s also an opportunity for those over age 60 without Parkinson’s disease who have lost their sense of smell or are acting out their dreams while asleep (REM sleep behaviour disorder). Those over age 60 without a known connection to Parkinson’s can become a control volunteer as well. Find more information or learn how to get involved at michaeljfox.org/ppmi

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