Experts draw attention to the “hidden sorrows” of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on people with Parkinson’s disease.

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New research sheds light on the needs of people with Parkinson’s disease during the pandemic.

Experts from Radboud University, Nijmegen in the Netherlands, have published a commentary article in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease, highlighting the “hidden sorrows” of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on people with Parkinson’s disease.

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In particular, the authors highlight the way stress and lack of physical activity can adversely affect the experience of people who have Parkinson’s disease.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has rapidly and radically changed the behavior of millions of people around the world. As a response to the pandemic, governments have introduced various emergency policies to limit social interaction in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease until scientists find a vaccine.

People with Parkinson’s disease face particular challenges. There is no definite data on the relationship between Parkinson’s disease and COVID-19. Scientists know that the leading cause of death in people with Parkinson’s disease is pneumonia and that pneumonia is also a key symptom of COVID-19.

However, according to the authors of the commentary article, the social restrictions that governments have instigated may significantly affect people with Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease is a type of neurodegenerative disorder. According to the National Institute on Aging, it results in joint stiffness, shaking, and difficulties moving. It typically affects people over the age of 60, and it worsens over time.

Parkinson’s occurs when neurons in a person’s brain die. These cells produce dopamine, and it is this reduction of dopamine that causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Scientists do not yet know precisely why this happens, and, currently, there is no cure.

According to the authors of the commentary article, people with Parkinson’s disease are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.

As the authors note:

“The pathophysiology of [Parkinson’s disease] puts patients at an increased risk of chronic stress, and a further worsening of this may well be one of the ‘hidden sorrows’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The authors also suggest that the increased stress of social isolation may reveal latent forms of Parkinson’s disease and that stress may increase the rate at which a person’s dopamine-producing neurons die off. However, this is something that scientists have only demonstrated in animal studies.

As well as the adverse effects of stress, the authors also point out that reduced opportunities to do physical activity may also cause problems for people with Parkinson’s disease.

As the authors note, “Many people are now largely, and sometimes, completely stuck at home, being unable to go out for a regular walk, let alone to see their physiotherapist or attend a fitness class.”

They highlight research that suggests being physically active — in particular, engaging in high-intensity aerobic exercise — may reduce the speed at which the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease develop.

The authors also speculate that non-motor issues related to Parkinson’s, such as insomnia or constipation, may even get worse through a lack of physical activity.

Despite the significant challenges people with Parkinson’s disease may experience, the authors also note positives that may emerge from the pandemic.

The simultaneous experience shared by millions of people may mean that researchers can carry out effective research into the relationship between stress and Parkinson’s.

In particular, the authors suggest that researchers could investigate why it is that some people can cope with stress better than others. This may be invaluable in the future for interventions that focus on the mental health of people with Parkinson’s.

The authors also note that an inability to go out regularly has led to an increase in the number of digital and remote exercise classes available to people with Parkinson’s disease. These exercise initiatives are now much easier to access, and they could remain a valuable resource for those people with Parkinson’s once the pandemic is over.

While it is important to bear these potential positives in mind, what is clear from the commentary article is the importance of understanding the varying ways in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus can affect different groups of people.

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