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Neurodegenerative disease: What you need to know about Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases

Posted July 06, 2020 by Dmitri S Kolychev, MD

Dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people in this country. 

It’s estimated there are 5 million Americans aged 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In addition, the Parkinson’s Foundation states there’s about 1 million people who suffer from the disease in this country, with more than 60,000 patients being newly diagnosed each year. 

Neurodegenerative disease involves the progressive deterioration, or death of cells, in the structure and function of the brain and central nervous system. They affect much of the body’s function, from balance and movement to memory and intelligence to breathing and heart function. 

Most of these diseases are genetic. However, sometimes the disease can be caused by a medical condition, including alcoholism, a tumor or a stroke, or exposure to certain viruses or toxins. 

Neurodegenerative diseases tend to get worse over time and can be life-threatening. There are treatments that can help improve symptoms, relieve pain and increase mobility, but currently there is no cure for them.

Dementia is a classic example, but two of the most common and severe neurodegenerative diseases are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Summa Health discusses these serious disorders, their symptoms and available treatments in hopes that a better understanding of them can better help those affected by them — both patients and caregivers. 

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Sadly, it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. 

Memory loss is the key symptom of Alzheimer's disease. However, there are three main phases of Alzheimer’s: mild, moderate and severe, and each stage has its own set of symptoms. 

An early sign of the disease is usually difficulty remembering recent events or conversations. As the disease progresses, memory impairments worsen and other symptoms develop, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Typical early signs to watch for, include: 

Memory loss that disrupts life
Challenges in planning or solving problems
Difficulty completing familiar tasks
Confusion with time or place
Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
New problems with words in speaking or writing


Although current treatments for Alzheimer’s cannot stop the disease from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. 

There are several medications available to temporarily improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including memory loss and confusion, by affecting certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain’s nerve cells. These drugs can help people with Alzheimer’s maximize function and maintain independence for a time.

There are non-drug options, as well. Coping strategies for behavioral and sleep changes can improve a patient’s well-being. In addition, establishing and strengthening routine habits and minimizing memory-demanding tasks can make life much easier for someone with Alzheimer’s. 

Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease typically strikes around age 60 and affects a person’s movement. Tremors are a common symptom, but the disorder also can cause stiffness or slowing of movement.

At first, symptoms may go unnoticed, but they worsen over time. Classic Parkinson’s symptoms include:

Tremors or uncontrollable shaking, which usually begin in a limb, often the hand or fingers. The tremors can occur when your hand is at rest.
Slowed movements, including walking and getting out of a chair, which can make simple tasks difficult and time-consuming.
Muscle stiffness, which can occur in any part of the body. It can be painful and limit your range of motion.
Impaired balance or problems with posture, which can become stooped. 
Loss of automatic movements, such as blinking, smiling or swinging your arms while walking.
Speech and writing impairments, including slurring or hesitating before speaking, or a loss of inflection in your voice. In addition, it may be difficult to write or your print could become small.


There is no standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Instead, treatment is tailored to each patient’s symptoms. Treatment typically includes medication and on occasion surgical therapy. 

There are many medications available to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s, although none that slow or reverse the progression of the disease. 

Since most symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by a lack of dopamine in the brain, many drugs are aimed at either temporarily replenishing dopamine or mimicking the action of dopamine. Medications can help reduce muscle rigidity, improve speed and coordination of movement, and lessen tremors for patients.

In addition to medication therapy, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, especially ongoing aerobic exercise, physical therapy that focuses on balance and stretching, and speech therapy to improve quality of life.

How Summa Health can help

Although there is no current cure for these neurodegenerative diseases, treatments are available and research continues. Understanding available options can help individuals living with a neurodegenerative disease and their caregivers cope with symptoms and improve quality of life.

That’s why it’s imperative that you consult with a doctor right away if you’re experiencing any of these signs or symptoms. Call 330.576.3500 to schedule an appointment.

If you’re a caregiver, we understand the difficulties involved. There are programs at Summa Health designed to offer support and provide information.


Options to Request an Appointment

If your situation is an emergency, call 911.