Living and thriving with Parkinson’s disease

April 30, 2021 Swedish Neuroscience Team

Key takeaways:

  • A healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and good nutrition, can help manage symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

  • Following your treatment plan can help you stay independent and manage your condition.

  • Research breakthroughs are offering new hope for patients with Parkinson’s.

[5 MIN READ]

A Parkinson’s disease diagnosis can sometimes come as quite a shock. It can bring uncertainty about what the future will hold – from how you’ll continue to navigate your independence to how you can still enjoy your favorite activities.

Fortunately, diagnosis, treatment and management of Parkinson’s has advanced considerably in the last decade. Patients are living longer and better managing symptoms.

“Parkinson's treatment has entered a very promising era of multidisciplinary medical and surgical interventions,” shares Pravin Khemani, M.D., neurologist at Swedish Neuroscience Institute  – Movement Disorders. “However, the fundamentals of treatment still hold true: health literacy, adherence to the treatment regimen and incorporating a healthy lifestyle are crucial to improving the overall quality of life of individuals and their caregivers affected by this disease.”

Dr. Khemani shares his insight and advice on how you can navigate your diagnosis and how nutrition, exercise and therapies can help you enjoy your independence. 

Get empowered with education

One of the first steps Dr. Khemani recommends for newly diagnosed patients and their loved ones is to get educated.

“There’s so much misinformation about the disease in the public domain. Additionally, misinterpretation of information may result in practices that are not based in science,” he explains.

The best place to start is with your own care team. Ask what resources you can use to help build healthy habits in nutrition and exercise to set a foundation for success.

“The best place to start is with your own care team. Ask what organizations or websites they recommend you visit for accurate information. They may also have resources you can use to help build healthy habits in nutrition and exercise to set a foundation for success,” he adds.

Exercise and Parkinson’s

It’s no secret that exercise is key to staying healthy – physically, mentally and emotionally. That’s just as true if you have Parkinson’s, perhaps even more so.

“Parkinson's causes a progressive decline in mobility and range of motion. Consistent, active movement or exercise is critical to counter that decline,” explains Dr. Khemani. “Since strength is largely preserved in Parkinson’s disease, unlike neuromuscular diseases like ALS, you can capitalize on this fact to help slow and even prevent muscle loss, bone loss and muscle shortening that can lead to immobility.”

Not only can exercise help slow the progression of Parkinson’s, but regular physical activity can also improve your mental and emotional health.

Working closely with a physical therapist is critical. They can help you create a regular exercise program tailored to your needs and abilities, even as they change over time.

“We have scientific evidence that exercise increases certain neurochemicals that nourish neurons or brain cells,” Dr. Khemani states. “Effective medical treatment with Parkinson’s medications facilitates movement and improves exercise tolerance. Exercise is not a substitute for medical treatment, but it is a great partner to help you achieve your goals,” he finishes.

Working closely with a physical therapist is critical. They can help you create, modify and follow a safe and regular exercise program tailored to your needs and abilities, even as they change over time.

Eat healthy, feel strong

Good nutrition is key to preserving both physical and mental strength. People with Parkinson’s may also benefit from a diet that supports brain health, like the Mediterranean diet.

“Studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in dairy and meat, is good for brain health,” states Dr. Khemani. “These same principles are applicable to Parkinson's. We recommend a nutrition-dense diet with plenty of fiber and hydration for all patients with Parkinson's.”

A nutritionist who specializes in brain health can help you build a diet that’s tailored to your diagnosis, symptoms, likes and dislikes. 

A nutritionist who specializes in brain health can help you build a diet that’s tailored to your diagnosis, symptoms, likes and dislikes. Most importantly, they will spend time reviewing what foods are good to eat and how they can help brain function – like adding berries to your shopping list and switching from butter to olive oil.

Maintain your independence

One of the biggest concerns you may have when diagnosed with Parkinson’s is how you can maintain your independence. Since Parkinson’s can affect balance, coordination and cognition, you may wonder if your skills will deteriorate over time, making you dependent on others for general activities. However, Dr. Khemani has some encouraging words:

“A well-treated patient, who is following the specialists’ plan for medical treatment and living a healthy lifestyle can remain independent for the majority of their diagnosis,” he shares.

A well-treated patient, who is following the specialists’ plan for medical treatment and living a healthy lifestyle can remain independent for the majority of their diagnosis.

Depending on your diagnosis, treatment that can help you remain mobile and cognitively stable may include:

  • Neuro-rehabilitation to develop and implement balance exercises and fall prevention strategies.
  • Occupational therapy to help you modify activities, create strategies or identify tools to help you complete activities of daily living, like showering, getting dressed or eating.
  • Physical therapy to help minimize the loss of mobility and build strength, stamina and flexibility.
  • Speech therapy to improve vocal cord function and speech output; and strengthen swallowing muscles.
  • Medications that can help you manage your symptoms.

Dental care and Parkinson’s

Another important step in managing Parkinson’s is one you may not think of at first: See your dentist regularly.

Good dental hygiene can reduce the risk of needing dentures or having gum diseases that interfere with chewing and swallowing. 

“Good oral health is beneficial to ensure chewing and swallowing are preserved. This is true for everyone as they age, but especially for those with Parkinson’s. Good dental hygiene can reduce the risk of needing dentures or having gum diseases that interfere with chewing and strain swallowing muscles as they work harder to direct food into the esophagus,” Dr. Khemani explains. 

Deteriorating dental health can be a challenge for a couple of reasons. First, chewing and swallowing may already be difficult for you based on your stage of Parkinson’s. Second, you may have digestive problems that occur as reduced motility in the gut slows the absorption and emptying of the digestive tract.

Bottom line: Chewing starts with strong teeth. Keep yours healthy with regular visits to the dentist.

Be upfront about sexual dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction is common in Parkinson’s as the disease affects the autonomic nerves, which operate sexual organs. Although it may be uncomfortable at first to bring this up with your doctor, Dr. Khemani encourages his patients to be honest about all the symptoms they experience.

“Sexual dysfunction is quite treatable,” he reassures. “Often, your neurologist will refer you to a urologist or a urogynecologist for a more detailed assessment – and to help you find answers.”

Innovations in care

There are many treatments, therapies and approaches available to help you manage your condition, minimize symptoms and enjoy a full, healthy and independent life. Dr. Khemani is also excited about what the future holds for patients – from new drugs to research breakthroughs.

There is a whole new class of exciting treatments that are being researched to slow down the progression of Parkinson's, in addition to treating its symptoms effectively.

“There is a whole new class of exciting treatments that are being researched to slow down the progression of Parkinson's, in addition to treating its symptoms effectively,” he shares. “New drugs are being designed to reduce the accumulation and spread of alpha-synuclein protein, which is thought to be a key-player in Parkinson's progression.”

Other advances include:

  • Pharmaceutical agents, including stem cells, are being studied to reduce brain inflammation and interfere with the harmful processes that cause the death of brain cells.
  • Surgical treatment of Parkinson's has entered a new era of brain-machine interfacing, which allows surgeons to improve mobility.
  • Focused ultrasound, a new treatment that can help reduce hand tremors.

“Focused ultrasound (FUS) is a treatment that uses very precisely guided ultrasound waves to cause a lesion that then interrupts and destroys tremor-causing brain cells,” says Dr. Khemani.

Currently, FUS is approved for treatment of the hand (right or left but not both) most affected by essential tremor or Parkinson's tremor. Although approved by the FDA, it is only very recently being paid for by insurance.

Looking to a bright future

A Parkinson’s diagnosis doesn’t have to slow you down. There are so many advances in treatment that can help you enjoy your favorite activities, take care of yourself and retain control over your independence.

The Movement Disorders Program at Swedish offers comprehensive care from providers in many different specialties. This multidisciplinary approach gives you access to innovative and proven treatments, based in science and compassion.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From deep brain stimulation to focused ultrasound to pediatric neurology, The Swedish Neuroscience Team is recognized as national experts to help people address a wide array of neurological conditions. Our goal is to provide useful and helpful advice and tips on non-surgical and surgical options to treat any disease of the mind.

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