Some signs of Parkinson's disease are ones most of us recognize, such as tremor and trouble walking. But very early signs of the disease, which can appear a decade or more before the disease presents in more obvious physical forms, are often mistaken for something else — including normal signs of aging.
Problems that are common among older adults, such as trouble sleeping, constipation, muscle stiffness and increased anxiety and depression are all related to early-stage Parkinson’s. So is loss of smell, a well-established symptom of COVID-19.
Experiencing them doesn’t mean you have Parkinson’s disease, but they are certainly worth discussing with your doctor, especially if you are having several of them at the same time.
“The early signs are normally not problems that bring anybody to the doctor,” says Michele Tagliati, M.D., director of the Movement Disorders Program and vice chair of the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
That’s because the effects of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder, are far-reaching and often lead to changes long before a tremor appears. Twenty-five percent of people with Parkinson’s may not even develop a tremor, research shows. While there is no cure for Parkinson's, there are medications that can help with symptoms. What's more, lifestyle changes can help manage the disease and an early diagnosis can help with planning. Here are eight things to look for.
1. Restless sleeping
Talking in your sleep, sleep walking and/or acting out your dreams, also known as REM sleep behavior disorder, can be early warning signs of Parkinson’s. “We are supposed to be completely still and paralyzed” during sleep, says Tagliati. But for someone with Parkinson’s, the “mechanism in the brain that oversees this phase of sleep is somewhat defective.”
In fact, a 2014 study found that 33 percent of patients with REM sleep disorder had developed a neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s or Lewy body dementia, after five years. That number jumped to 91 percent after 14 years.
One sign of this problem is falling out of bed. If you live with someone else, they will most likely see or hear you acting out your dreams. Sometimes people even kick or punch in their sleep or jump out of bed suddenly. If you live alone, you may wake up with twisted sheets or wake yourself up yelling, says Camilla Kilbane, M.D., a neurologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.