Home for the Holidays: Spotting the First Signs of Parkinson's Disease


The holidays are often a time of year when families are reunited after having spent months, even years, apart. While many will spend their time reminiscing over a home-cooked meal and warm holiday cookies, some may face a realization that the health of a loved one is diminishing.

Seeing changes in those we love can be unsettling — even scary. And, in some cases, what you see and what you identify can be vital in getting proper treatment for a serious condition.

It’s important not to ignore the small changes in behavior you notice from your mother, father, aunt or uncle while gathered around the table this holiday season. Some small changes in movement or behavior could be the first time you’re witnessing the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD) with a loved one.

A hand tremor. A shaking chin. A drastic change in handwriting. Sometimes those are signs of fatigue. Yet, they are also the early signs of PD. And it’s important you know what to look for and what to do next.

In the United States, 50,000-60,000 new cases of PD are diagnosed each year. What many people do not realize is that there are multiple symptoms to be on the lookout for, aside from the most commonly known indicators including tremors and shaking. In all my years treating Parkinson’s patients, I’ve never once seen two cases exactly the same and this is because PD is a complex disease and diagnosis is based on a variety of different factors.

Early Warning Signs

In fact, many people are often left undiagnosed for years due to symptoms going unnoticed. By gaining the knowledge to be able to recognize symptoms early, you could help provide the greatest gift there is this holiday season. With early detection, treatment, and expert care, many people are living longer, productive lives with PD.

Here are ways to spot the early warning signs of PD:

  1. Stooping or Hunching Over: When you arrived for the holiday gathering, did you notice a family member stooping, leaning or slouching when they opened the door? Did this continue throughout the evening? Not standing up straight may be a sign of PD.
  2. Different handwriting: For as long as you’ve been able to read, you could pick out a handwritten note from a loved one. Suddenly their words are much closer together and the copy is much smaller and harder to read. A sudden change in handwriting can be a sign of PD.
  3. Loss of smell: Did the smell of a burnt batch of cookies fill the house and a relative took zero notice to it? Pay close attention to those who have trouble smelling certain foods, research has found that it can be one of the early PD warning signs.
  4. Sleep Trouble: There are a lot of reasons for sleep interruption but, if you find it’s become an ongoing complaint, or they’ve falling out of bed on occasion, it’s worth checking it out.
  1. Dizziness and Fainting: If you noticed a loved one become dizzy or even faint, it could be the result of low blood pressure, a condition which has been linked to PD.

Often a family member will choose to keep quiet if they witness abnormal behavior for fear of upsetting someone. While the diagnosis of PD can be scary, it’s worse to wonder or to have this condition go undiagnosed and untreated.

Resources are available to help answer questions about the early warning signs of PD, or assist in determining what the next course of action should be for anyone who is diagnosed with PD and those called to be caregivers. The National Parkinson Foundation has built a community of experts who are available to offer advice and support, including a toll-free Helpline, 1-800-4PD-INFO (1-800-473-4636). For more information about the early warning signs of PD, visit www.parkinson.org/10signs.

Michael S. Okun, MD, is the National Medical Director of the National Parkinson Foundation and co-director of the Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration, part of the McKnight Brain Institute and the University of Florida College of Medicine. He is the author of Amazon’s No. 1 Parkinson’s Best Seller 10 Secrets to a Happier Life and is considered one of the world’s top experts on Parkinson’s disease, movement disorders, and deep brain stimulation.

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