Though African Americans are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than other races, they do have greater disability and disease severity, and are less likely to be prescribed medication.
Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most high-profile person to battle the condition, which could have been caused from repeated blows to the head. But it doesn’t require a boxing career or other forms of head trauma to develop the disease.
Studies show that African Americans may be more likely to be undiagnosed. Cultural and educational differences may prevent patients from seeking appropriate care, particularly at early stages, when symptoms are not yet disabling. One study showed that African Americans more than Whites may see parkinsonian symptoms as an inevitable part of aging and dementia more as a natural result of living a difficult life.
Parkinson’s disease creeps up slowly, starting with mild symptoms that are easy to ignore at first. Here’s what doctors look for:
1. Slow movement and clumsiness. If it takes longer than usual to button a shirt, make a phone call, or do any task that requires hand coordination — and there’s no other obvious explanation for it – it could be an early sign of Parkinson’s. This slowness of movement is known as bradykinesia. As the disease progresses, Parkinson’s disease patients may find themselves momentarily “freezing” like a statue while walking or turning, unable to take the next step.
2. Hand and leg shaking. About 70 to 80 percent of Parkinson’s disease patients have a “resting tremor” in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, or face. The shakiness occurs when, say, the patient rests her hand relaxed in her lap, as opposed to when moving to pour a cup of tea. The trembling could make it look as if she’s rolling a pill between her thumb and forefinger.
If your loved one’s hand is shaking while engaged — holding a cup or writing with a pen, for example — she may instead have what’s called an “essential tremor,” not Parkinson’s disease.
3. Stiffness or soreness. Rigidity of the muscles in the arms, legs, and body makes it harder to move. Getting out of bed in the morning, or standing up from a chair, can be difficult. Patients with Parkinson’s disease make fewer spontaneous body gestures and lose facial expressiveness. When flexing a bicep and then straightening the arm out, there may be a jerkiness to the motion, as if the arm is catching on a cogwheel.
4. One side of body is out of whack. Whether it’s a trembling pinky finger or a strange stiffness in the foot, the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease almost always affect just one side at first. Later, sometimes after many years, they spread to the other side.
5. A change in penmanship. One of the first oddities that many Parkinson’s disease patients notice is that their handwriting has become smaller and cramped — an early hint of motor difficulties.
6. Sadness and/or low energy. Parkinson’s patients commonly develop depression before showing problems with movement. Experts believe the mood disorder is part of Parkinson’s disease itself, not simply a reaction to having the illness.
7. Loss of sense of smell. Very early on, people with Parkinson’s disease often lose their sense of smell because the neurodegenerative process affects the olfactory system. However, a reduced sensitivity to smells can also result from other causes.
8. Difficult to understand or hear speech. Parkinson’s disease can make the voice softer, muffled, and slurred.
The Parkinson’s Foundation has more on living well with Parkinson’s Disease.