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Parkinson’s Disease: Differences Between Young Onset & Later Years

Before Michael J. Fox was diagnosed, not many people thought of Parkinson’s as a young person’s disease. Although the average age of a Parkinson’s diagnosis is 62, even teenagers can become afflicted. For people under 50, this is a special diagnosis called young-onset Parkinson’s. While Parkinson’s and young-onset Parkinson’s are largely similar, the development of the disease and the specific symptoms that are experienced can significantly vary.

Parkinson’s at a Later Age vs. Young-Onset

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a common neurodegenerative disease that affects nearly one in 100 seniors over the age of 60. There are about 60,000 new cases  of PD diagnosed in the US every year. Because it’s far less common for young adults to develop Parkinson’s, most clinicians don’t consider it as a possibility until many other options are ruled out, which can take time. This is why young-onset Parkinson’s cases often take more than a year to diagnose.

Researchers are only beginning to understand the relationship between the progression of the disease and the age of the patient, but a number of things have become clear over the past few years. For one thing, the progression of Parkinson’s appears to be significantly slower in younger adults. At least one study suggests it can take nearly three years for a young adult to reach Stage 1 Parkinson’s from the onset of their symptoms. That’s nearly twice as long as it takes for Parkinson’s to develop through Stage 1 in an older adult.

But it’s not all good news for young PD patients. Recent research at the University of Texas discovered younger adults were more likely to develop treatment-based side effects of PD, as well as develop non-motor symptoms like anxiety, depression, and apathy. Younger adults were also more likely to experience rigidity as their earliest symptom, where older adults were more likely to experience tremors. 

What Does Parkinson’s Feel Like?

It can be difficult to understand what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s. Patients have described their stiffness as though they had been sitting for a 10-hour car ride, but with that stiff feeling setting in only moments after sitting down. Aches and pains can feel as though you’d run a triathlon the prior day, and fatigue may leave you with the desire to take a nap after even minor physical activity, like doing some laundry.

In describing their Parkinson’s symptoms, older PD patients also tend to emphasize their slow movement, which can feel like being stuck inside a giant sports mascot costume. This feeling of encumberment can lead to taking smaller steps and shuffling your feet together, which causes balance and posture issues – and that can quickly turn into a dangerous fall.

Thriving with Parkinson’s Disease

No matter your age, living with Parkinson’s isn’t easy. Symptoms may come and go in cycles over the course of a days or weeks, and can become exacerbated by triggers like heat, cold, stress, and illness. As the disease progresses, the severity of those symptoms will only increase until PD has taken away your ability to stand, to walk, and to live alone. These challenges are nothing short of demanding, but with the right care, it’s possible to continue to enjoy a rich and rewarding life for many years after diagnosis.  

Do you or someone you love have Parkinson’s disease? How old were you when you were diagnosed? How have you managed your symptoms?