Doctors Call for an End to the Parkinson’s Pandemic
Parkinson’s disease is not new—descriptions of the condition can be found in ancient Chinese medical texts from 425 BC and Indian medical texts from 600 BC. There have been references to Parkinson’s symptoms in documents from Greek, Roman, and other civilizations over the past two thousand years. However, it’s assumed that the condition used to be relatively rare, and it did not have a universally recognized name until recently.
In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Europe and the United States. The air and water in London had become heavily polluted with new chemicals and toxins, leading to the term “London fog.” Dr. James Parkinson observed six men on the streets of London who exhibited what we know today to be the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: tremors, stooped posture, shuffling gait, and a tendency to fall. He described these case studies in 1817 in “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy.” By the end of the 19th century, Parkinson’s disease was widely recognized by the medical community, but the cause was still unknown. It was only in hindsight that London’s pollution provided a clue.
In the 1950s, Swedish pharmacologist Dr. Arvid Carlsson identified the neurotransmitter dopamine, and in laboratory experiments with rabbits he discovered that dopamine plays an essential role in the brain’s control of movement. He also discovered that giving the rabbits levodopa (L-dopa), which is converted into dopamine in the brain, allowed them to regain normal movement.
Humans naturally synthesize levodopa from the amino acid L-tyrosine. When L-dopa was administered as a drug to Parkinson’s patients, the effects were astounding. L-dopa is still the most effective drug for managing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately, L-dopa is not a cure.
It wasn’t until 1982, when doctors observed a case of Parkinson’s that occurred suddenly as a result of taking a synthetic version of heroin, that scientists figured out that a chemical could kill dopamine-producing neurons and cause the condition. Soon they discovered that commonly used pesticides had the same effect.
Pesticides and other toxins are clearly one of the causes of Parkinson’s disease; the prevalence of Parkinson’s began increasing during the Industrial Revolution, and spiked again when synthetic pesticides were introduced in the mid-20th century. The least industrialized countries in the world have the lowest rates of Parkinson’s, while countries like China that are rapidly becoming more industrialized and polluted have the highest rates of increase.
In March 2020, four neurologists and neuroscientists (Drs. Ray Dorsey, Todd Sherer, Michael S. Okun, and Bastiaan R. Bloem) released the book Ending Parkinson’s Disease: A Prescription for Action. The book is heavily focused on how widespread use of pesticides and other neurotoxic chemicals have made Parkinson’s disease the world’s fastest growing neurological disorder.
Approximately 0.3% of the general population, and 1% of people over age 60, have Parkinson’s disease. These percentages equate to 6.2 million people as of 2015, and The Global Burden of Disease Study estimates that there will be at least 12.9 million people with Parkinson’s globally by 2040.
The authors of Ending Parkinson’s Disease call Parkinson’s a man-made pandemic; instead of being caused by a virus or bacteria, it’s caused by “urbanization, population aging, globalization, and widespread availability of unhealthy products.” Their “Prescription for Action” has four steps:
- Prevent: Ban the use of neurotoxic chemicals and make lifestyle changes
- Advocate: Push for increased research funding
- Care: Expand and improve diagnosis and medical care
- Treat: Participate in research studies
Despite the overwhelming evidence for the role of man-made neurotoxic chemicals in Parkinson’s disease, it’s clear that these chemicals are not the only cause. The authors also describe other factors that contribute to Parkinson’s: genetics, traumatic head injuries, lack of exercise, diet, and gut dysbiosis. They don’t present research on the role of chronic stress, the evidence for which is mounting, but I’ve included it in this post. The authors write:
“Two hundred years after Parkinson’s essay, researchers have identified many causes of Parkinson’s, but more of them remain to be found. Like cancer, Parkinson’s is not one disease but rather a collection of many with different contributing factors.”
It is widely agreed in the scientific community that Parkinson’s is most often the result of a complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors—this is what has made it so difficult to define, treat, and prevent. Having one risk factor is often not enough to trigger the condition, but having two or more increases the odds substantially. It can be hard to wrap our minds around the fact that such a variety of factors can all result in the same, or similar, pathology. But this is true for many chronic conditions including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
The authors include an insightful quote from Parkinson’s expert Dr. William Weiner: “There is no single Parkinson disease…there never has been.”
Dr. Weiner felt that “the misunderstanding of Parkinson disease may be hindering clinical research trials.” He proposed use of the term “Parkinson diseases” and suggested that different versions of the disease have different causes, symptoms, rates of progression, and treatments.
In this post I’ll summarize some of the most important points from Ending Parkinson’s Disease, and discuss how genetics, toxins, head trauma, lack of exercise, diet and gut health, and stress all contribute to Parkinson’s. Where I have not linked to research, the studies and statistics are referenced and described in Ending Parkinson’s Disease. Be sure to read next week’s post on how people use exercise and stress reduction to boost dopamine, enhance the natural process of neurogenesis, reduce the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s, and in some cases eliminate motor symptoms completely.