Does Parkinson's Kill You?

People who are newly diagnosed with Parkinson's disease will have many questions for their doctor. One of them is usually whether it'll cause death. Parkinson's is a progressive condition and there is no cure. It is caused by low levels of dopamine in the brain. This can cause severe disability over time. Almost a million people in the United States are diagnosed and living with this condition.

Does Parkinson's Kill You?

Parkinson's itself is not a fatal condition and in itself will not kill you. As a matter of fact, the life expectancy with Parkinson's is only slightly shorter than most people without the disease if you catch it early and take good care of yourself.

However, complications of Parkinson's are usually what shorten life expectancy in people with this condition. Death due to Parkinson's related complications isn't too common, but it can occur. Early detection, treatment, and assistance with living help reduce the risk. Here are some of the things that can lead to death from Parkinson's:

1. Aspiration Pneumonia 

Parkinson's affects the way muscles function. This can cause problems with the throat and/or vocal cord muscles that close the throat off from the lungs when swallowing. As a result, food and fluids may enter the lungs leading to pneumonia. This type of pneumonia is extremely serious.

2. Falls

The shuffling gait and stiff legs that occur with Parkinson's raises the risk of falls. People with Parkinson's are at high risk of head injuries and hip fractures. Both of these cause an increased risk of death.

3. Dementia

Research continues to find the reason why people with dementia seem to be at higher risk of early death with Parkinson's. This is because dementia usually only affects cognitive function and not motor skills. A lack of adequate help in the home or caregiver may have a profound effect on people suffering from both Parkinson's and dementia, as these two conditions together would need increased supervision.

How Long Can You Live with Parkinson's?

Life expectancy with Parkinson's depends on how early you are diagnosed and begin treatment. The longer you wait, the higher your risk of complications that could shorten your life. In general, people with Parkinson's do have a slightly shorter life expectancy. Does Parkinson's kill you? Not the condition itself. Can complications from Parkinson's contribute to an earlier death? Yes.

Studies show that death due to complications of Parkinson's occurs anywhere from 2 years after diagnosis all the way up to 37 years after diagnosis. Here are some other helpful statistics on life expectancy with Parkinson's: 

  • Men are at a 60% increased risk of death due to Parkinson's
  • The average age of death with Parkinson's is around 81 years' old
  • The average life expectancy after diagnosis is about 16 years
  • People that have severe cognitive dysfunction or mental manifestations are at a 50% higher risk of death

Again, it isn't actually Parkinson's that shortens life expectancy, but the complications. Currently there is no cure for Parkinson's. The good news is that treatments are available to reduce the symptoms. This can improve quality of life and can help prevent complications. These treatments include:

  • Levodopa/Carbidopa - Since Parkinson's is related to low dopamine levels, these drugs in combination are converted to dopamine in the brain. Once converted, the neurons store it for when it is needed.
  • Dopamine Agonists mimic the effects of dopamine in the body. They don't need to be converted or stored. These medications are very helpful for more severe cases and later stages of the disease to better control symptoms.
  • Amantadine is often used alongside Levodopa and dopamine agonists to help better control involuntary movements.
  • MAO-B Inhibitors reduce the amount of dopamine broken down by the brain so more is available for use.
  • Anticholinergics help to control involuntary tremors. They are commonly used in younger cases of Parkinson's.
  • COMT Inhibitors – When you take Levodopa, some is converted to a usable form and a small amount is converted to an inactive form the brain can't use. COMT Inhibitors ensure that all the levodopa you are taking is converted into a usable form. Therefore, they are usually a part of treatment with Levodopa.

Signs Death Is Near

When asking "Does Parkinson's kill you?" it is important to know what to watch for. End stage Parkinson's signs include:

  • Inability to walk/wheelchair bound
  • Inability to communicate
  • Severe dementia
  • Incontinence of bowel and bladder
  • Increased infections
  • Requires around the clock care and supervision

What If You're Diagnosed with Parkinson's?

Understand Parkinson's doesn't have to feel like a "death sentence." Follow these helpful tips to improve your quality of life with Parkinson's:

  • Don't be afraid. While it may be normal to feel some anger, go ahead and let it out. After you process your diagnosis, continue to live your life as usual. You won't die from Parkinson's.
  • Research as much as you can. Learn everything about Parkinson's and how you can live with this condition. It may even be helpful to join a Parkinson's support group so you can share experiences with others who have it.
  • Have fun! Tell jokes. Laugh. Find humor in life and let it help you feel better. Think of something positive every day. 
  • Sit down with your partner and/or family and make a life plan. Figure out what you will do when you become disabled. Line up caregivers and assign household tasks to others. Plan for making your home more accessible and plan for your financial future if you have to stop working.
  • Make healthy lifestyle changes. Eat a high fiber diet. Start and exercise routine. Quit smoking and limit alcohol intake. 

How Will Parkinson's Affect Your Life?

The effects of Parkinson's can affect your life in numerous ways. It may not cause death, but can lower quality-of-life:

  • Inability to Perform Small Motor Tasks: You may lose your ability to write clearly due to hand tremor. It may also be hard to use your phone or television remote. Hand tremors can happen when you are resting your hand and get worse when you try to use it. There is also a sign called "pill rolling" where your thumb and forefinger simultaneously touch each other constantly.
  • Trouble Speaking Clearly: You may notice changes in your speech. Your voice may become softer or you may talk faster than usual. It may be harder to get words out or you can develop slurred speech. People often develop flattened or monotone speech.
  • Trouble Walking and Balancing: You may walk with a shuffle or bent over. Your legs may stiffen up and not bend. You will also notice that you walk slower. A very serious issue is when balance issues become prominent and you begin to fall over often.
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