Is a Parkinson’s Epidemic on the Horizon?

Q. We just found out that my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I don’t know much about Parkinson’s, except that it is a progressive neurological disease with no cure and that it affects movement. The doctor said that there has been more education and awareness efforts, since Parkinson’s has become more prevalent in the past few years. Why are more people getting Parkinson’s lately? What do they think could be the cause and what are some resources for those who are newly diagnosed? Thanks for your help!

A. Thank you for your question. You are correct that there is more information and resources available about Parkinson’s, especially this month, since April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month.

Over the last 10 years, the number of people with Parkinson’s in the United States has increased 35%, according to The Guardian. “We think over the next 25 years it will double again,” says Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and author of Ending Parkinson’s Disease, making Parkinson’s “the fastest-growing neurological disorder in the world.”

What Causes Parkinson’s?

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, we don’t know exactly what causes Parkinson’s disease (PD), but scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are involved. The extent to which each factor is involved varies from person to person and researchers do not know why some people develop Parkinson’s and others do not.

Genetics cause about 10% to 15% of all Parkinson’s. In some families, changes (or mutations) in certain genes are inherited or passed down from generation to generation. Certain ethnic groups, such as Ashkenazi Jews and North African Arab Berbers, more commonly carry genes linked to PD and researchers are still trying to understand why.

Regardless of how a person gets Parkinson’s — through genetics or environment or a combination of both — those with PD experience a loss of dopamine in the brain and most people with PD experience symptoms such as tremors, slowness, stiffness, and walking and balance problems, and other non-movement issues such as depression, memory problems and more as the disease progresses.

TCE, A Carcinogen, Could Be Partly to Blame to Parkinson’s Increase

As mentioned, environment plays a big role in Parkinson’s, and new studies are showing that trichloroethylene (TCE) could be among the causes of the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, TCE is found in cleaning wipes, aerosol cleaning products, tool cleaners, paint removers, spray adhesives, carpet cleaners, and spot removers. It was also used as an anesthetic until it was banned in the United States for that purpose in 1977. Prolonged or repeated exposure of TCE has been known to cause kidney cancer and may be associated with an increased risks of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and, possibly, liver cancer. TCE could also be behind the alarming rise in Parkinson’s Disease, says Dorsey, who believes “a Parkinson’s epidemic is on the horizon.”

TCE is banned in Europe, but there are no federal restrictions on it in the US, and only Minnesota and New York have banned the compound. As a result, TCE is shockingly common in the water Americans drink and bathe in. It’s been found in about 30% of the groundwater in the country, though experts told The Guardian the real number is probably higher. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 250 million pounds of the chemical are still used annually in the US, and that in 2017, more than 2 million pounds of it was released into the environment from industrial sites, contaminating air, soil, and water.

Regardless of exactly how much TCE is still being used, that “widespread contamination could explain the rapidly-increasing number of Parkinson’s Disease cases,” Dorsey said. “Numerous studies have linked well water to Parkinson’s disease, and it’s not just TCE in those cases, it can be pesticides like paraquat, too,” he said.

Why Scientists are Just Discovering the Link Now

Scientists first linked TCE to Parkinson’s in 2012, but the compound is often overlooked in studies on the disease because decades can pass in between exposure and the onset of symptoms. While some people exposed may show symptoms of PD immediately, others may unknowingly work or live on contaminated sites for most of their lives before developing symptoms of Parkinson’s.

A study from ten years ago, that appeared in the Annals of Neurology, found that exposure to TCE is significantly associated with increased risk of PD and that symptoms of disease may appear 10 to 40 years following exposure. The study, led by Drs. Samuel Goldman and Caroline Tanner with The Parkinson’s Institute in California, investigated exposure to TCE and other contaminants and the risk of developing PD. The team interviewed 99 twin pairs from the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council World War II Veteran Twins Cohort in which one twin had PD and one didn’t, inquiring about lifetime occupations and hobbies. Lifetime exposures to six specific solvents including TCE were inferred for each job or hobby. The findings reported a significant association between TCE exposure and PD — a more than 6-fold increased risk.

What You Can Do

Given that the negative health effects of TCE have been documented in the Journal of the American Medical Association since 1932, it’s time for other states to follow New York and Minnesota and ban use of TCE for good. There isn’t much we can do to completely avoid it, but using activated carbon filtration devices, such as Brita filters, can help reduce TCE in drinking water, yet bathing in contaminated water, as well as inhaling vapors from toxic groundwater and soil, can be far more difficult to avoid.

Another Possible Reason Why More People May Get Parkinson’s

As discussed in our article “Does COVID-19 Have Any Connection to Parkinson’s Disease?,” Australian scientists are warning that the damage the COVID-19 virus causes to the brain may also lead to more serious conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. For more details on studies that investigate the relationship between PD and COVID-19, visit the American Parkinson’s Disease Association website for the latest research.

Do You Have a Loved One with Parkinson’s or Another Debilitating Disease?

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with PD, the Parkinson’s Foundation offers advice written by people who have lived well with PD for several years. Discovering the right medications, complementary therapies, support, and ways to stay independent can enhance your quality of life with PD. The Parkinson’s Foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the American Parkinson’s Disease Foundation all offer helpful resources.

If you or a loved one is nearing the need for long-term care, or is already receiving long-term care, or if you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), please call us at one of the numbers below to make an appointment for an initial no-cost consultation:

Elder Care Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888

Elder Care Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-143

Elder Care Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041

Elder Care Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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