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When Life Gives You Parkinson’s podcast: How did I get Parkinson’s?

'When Life Gives You Parkinson's' podcast host Larry Gifford experiences dyskinesia.
'When Life Gives You Parkinson's' podcast host Larry Gifford experiences dyskinesia. Twitter / @ParkinsonsPod

What are the different possible triggers for being diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

On this episode of When Life Gives You Parkinson’s, I try to narrow down how the degenerative brain disorder was unleashed on me. After my co-host Niki and I chat about the how, my wife Rebecca and I begin to explore the why.

If you have Parkinson’s disease (PD), you may want to play along at home while you listen. Here’s a handy checklist to see what factors potentially triggered the onset of your PD:

Check ALL that apply:

  • I am male.
  • I am more than 60 years old.
  • I have parents or siblings who have Parkinson’s disease.
  • Genetic tests show I carry a gene that is associated with the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Genetic tests show I carry a gene that is associated with brain degeneration.
  • I play or played a high-contact sport (football, hockey, rugby, boxing, martial arts).
  • I have played or played high-contact sports for more than eight years.
  • I have experienced several concussions.
  • I live or have lived near a major, busy road.
  • I have worked or lived near a chemical plant.
  • I have suffered Agent Orange exposure.
  • I have been exposed, over a long period time or at extremely high levels, to pesticides.
  • I have been described as a workaholic, a Type A personality or stressed out.
  • I do not exercise.
  • I have had a stroke.
  • I have injected the MPTP strain of synthetic heroin and suffered spontaneous Parkinson’s.
  • I was born with damaged dopamine-producing brain cells.
  • I died. During my autopsy, alpha-synuclein was discovered clumping in my brain (Lewy Bodies).
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I did not realize how much I was asking myself: “what did I do to get Parkinson’s?” until I started putting together this episode. The recent study by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California that we discuss at the end of the episode was a real revelation for me. It suggests that people with young onset Parkinson’s disease (YOPD) may be born with malfunctioning dopamine-producing brain cells, which leads to the clumping of the protein alpha-synulcein, or Lewy bodies, and ultimately leads to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

READ MORE: When Life Gives You Parkinson’s podcast: Empowering people with Parkinson’s

In the episode, we hear from many qualified professionals about the different reasons why Parkinson’s onsets. Sohini Chowdhury, deputy CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, discusses why she is so interested in alpha-synuclein research.

“We know it’s the hallmark of Parkinson’s. Research and therapies targeting this protein gets to the root biological process,” Chowdhury said.

At the University of Southern Californa, Los Angeles, Dr. Jeff Bronstein, head of the university’s movement disorders clinic, and Dr. Beate Ritz, professor of epidemiology at Fielding School of Public Health, collaborate on environmental factors that could trigger the onset of PD, like pesticides, both for the home and industrial use.

Ritz has little doubt when she speaks on this topic.

“Some pesticides are neurotoxic in a way that causes Parkinson’s disease when you are exposed over a very long time or very high levels,” she said.

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In the episode, we examine the herbicide Paraquat, which is banned in many countries around the world yet remains one of the most widely used chemicals to protect crops.

There are many ways people can trigger Parkinson’s and many reasons why someone is diagnosed with it. Bronstein believes every case is unique.

“I think of it as a humongous Venn diagram in which there and many, many different factors,” he said.

READ MORE: When Life Gives You Parkinson’s podcast: How does misdiagnosis affect patients?

In the end, how I got Parkinson’s may not matter to anyone else but me. But, for me, I’d be more comfortable knowing it was hibernating within me until I was ready for it instead of me doing something to unnaturally cause it. In reality, I’ll likely never know what combination of things unlocked this disease.

On the flip side, it’s brought me as much joy, friendship, perspective and purpose in life — and maybe more — than any one thing in my life.

If you have a comment or question about the podcast, you can email us at parkinsonspod@curiouscast.ca.

We invite you to add your voice to the show and leave a message for us here.

Follow me, Larry Gifford

Twitter: @ParkinsonsPod

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Facebook: Facebook.com/ParkinsonsPod

Instagram: @parkinsonspod

Follow co-host and producer Niki Reitmayer

Twitter: @Niki_Reitmayer

Special thanks to…

Dr. Jeff Bronstein, head of the movement disorders clinic at UCLA

Dr. Beata Ritz, professor of epidemiology at Fielding School of Public Health

Dr. Malu Tansey, director at the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease

Dr. Matt Farrer, program director of neurology and movement disorders at the University of Florida

Michael Brauer, professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health

Sohini Chowdhury, deputy CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation

Marty Gifford

Rebecca Gifford

The book referred to in the podcast is called The Case of the Frozen Addicts.

Our presenting partner is Parkinson Canada.

The organization’s toll-free hotline is 1-800-565-3000.

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Follow Parkinson Canada on Twitter: @ParkinsonCanada

Thanks also to our content and promotional partners

Parkinson’s IQ + You — A free series of Parkinson’s events from the Michael J. Fox Foundation

Spotlight YOPD — The only Parkinson’s organization dedicated to raising awareness for young onset Parkinson’s disease and funds for the Cure Parkinson’s Trust.

We LOVE that you are loving the “When Life Gives You Parkinson’s” podcast! If you haven’t subscribed yet — what are you waiting for? 

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  • Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.
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  • Open the Google Podcasts app, search for When Life Gives You Parkinson’s and select it from the list of results.
  • Once on the When Life Gives You Parkinson’s page, click the “Subscribe” button to have new episodes sent to your mobile device for free.
  • Click the name of an episode from the list below to listen.