Usually, people don’t think of Parkinson Disease as being related to blood flow, or lack of blood flow, to the brain. However, neurologists have known for a very long time that small strokes in the brain can cause walking and balance problems which may mimic PD. This condition is known as Parkinsonism. The blockage of hundreds or thousands of tiny blood vessels builds up slowly over time and causes dysfunction or death of brain cells. These are akin to “silent” strokes; the person afflicted with them is never aware of any particular event. The end result is slow movement, poor balance, shuffling gait, slow thinking, memory loss. Sound familiar?
We also know that any degenerative neurological condition, such as Alzheimer Disease, Parkinson Disease, or Huntington Disease, seems to progress more rapidly if there is also blockage of the small blood vessels as mentioned above. This is partly the basis for encouraging exercise in people at risk for such diseases. We believe, and studies seem to support, that control of cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes) delays the onset and severity of neurological disease, especially in the case of Alzheimer Disease.
In an important new study published in the journal Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, showed that, even in people with seemingly normal brain scans (MRI or CT), there may be small blood vessel blockages seen in the brain at the time of autopsy. Furthermore, they correlated the severity of walking problems with the severity of the blockages. Up to 30% of people with normal brain scans had abnormal blood vessels on autopsy. The implication is that slow movements, decreased balance, and walking abnormalities may not be “normal aging.” This is similar to what we see with memory loss in the elderly; dementia used to be considered normal aging, but we now know that anything beyond mild memory loss suggests that there is an abnormal process occurring in the brain, such as Alzheimer Disease or other problems.
The main point is that we all need to take care of our cardiovascular health through proper diet, exercise, and getting treated for any hypertension, diabetes, or cholesterol problems.