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History of Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease was first described in 1817 by James Parkinson, a British physician who published a paper on what he called "the shaking palsy." In this paper, he set forth the major symptoms of the disease that would later bear his name. For the next century and a half, scientists pursued the causes and treatment of Parkinson's disease. They defined its range of symptoms, distribution among the population, and prospects for cure.

How Many People Does Parkinson's Disease Affect?

In the United States, at least 500,000 people are believed to suffer from Parkinson's and about 50,000 new cases are reported each year. These Parkinson's disease statistics are expected to increase as the average age of the population increases. Parkinson's disease appears to be slightly more common in men than women.
The average onset of Parkinson's occurs around age 60. The disease becomes more common with advancing age. Though Parkinson's is found most often in people over 50, as many as 10 percent of people with the condition are under the age of 40. These people are afflicted with what's called "young-onset" Parkinson's disease.
Parkinson's is found all over the world. The rates vary from country to country, but it is not clear whether this reflects true ethnic and/or geographic differences or discrepancies in the methods of data collection.
Microscopic brain structures, called Lewy bodies, which can only be seen during an autopsy, are regarded as a hallmark of classical Parkinson's disease. In one study, autopsies uncovered Lewy bodies in a surprising number of older people without diagnosed Parkinson's, including:
  • Eight percent of people over 50
  • Almost 13 percent of people over 70
  • Almost 16 percent of those over 80.
As a result, some experts believe Parkinson's disease is something of an "iceberg phenomenon," lurking undetected in as many as 20 people for each known person with Parkinson's. A few Parkinson's disease research scientists believe that almost everyone would develop Parkinson's eventually if they lived long enough.
Society pays an enormous price for Parkinson's disease. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, each person spends an average of $2,500 a year for medications. After factoring in office visits, Social Security payments, nursing home expenditures, and lost income, the total national cost is estimated to exceed $5.6 billion annually.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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