Disability Focus: Parkinson's Disease and Cognitive Impairment

Monday, July 30, 2012

*At Champions, we start every Monday morning with a presentation where one of our staff members highlights a disability, the symptoms related to the diagnosis and the barriers and opportunities related to employment for people who experience it. We do this as part of our commitment to organizational learning but also because we recognize how there are a vast amount of disabilities which affect each person differently. We then highlight these presentations in our Disability Focus blog posts here on Mondays.*

There are over 100,000 Canadians currently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and this number is expected to double by 2016 as Canada's population ages. While commonly known as a movement disorder, with symptoms such as shaking, rigidity and slowness of movement, there are lesser known symptoms like cognitive impairment which also affect people with the disease. 

In fact, at least one third to one quarter of people living with Parkinson's experience cognitive impairment. While the impairment is often mild, meaning a person can still function well at home and at work, the symptoms can still be frustrating to deal with. These symptoms include difficulties with memory, attention, difficulty in finding words and visualizing spatial imagery (think of mapping a route home). However, it's important to note how cognitive impairment related to Parkinson's differs from other impairments, like those associated with Alzheimers, where people lose their thinking ability over time. With Parkinson's, people living with the disease are dealing with a slowdown in their thinking ability, not a loss. 

The good news is that doctors can help. Speech and occupational therapy can be utilized to improve mental functioning and there are also drug therapies which may be able to help as well. The bad news is that the cognitive impairment is rarely discussed. People with Parkinson's may be unaware of their decrease in functioning and doctors may be reluctant to bring it up after a new diagnosis. Talking about cognitive impairment in the early stages of Parkinson's is vital to establishing a baseline for mental performance and to track the progression of the disease and monitor symptoms which may be related to medication and other health conditions. 

While cognitive impairment related to Parkinson's is becoming more well known there is still a long ways to go and a need for further research. More funding for research would lead to better techniques for detecting mental changes in patients and also help develop therapies for people dealing with a cognitive impairment. If you are interested in learning more about Parkinson's and possibly contributing to research then we highly recommend the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.


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