Parkinson’s Disease May Be More Common Among Welders

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What is
Parkinson’s Disease?

About 1 million people in the United States have Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that affects movement and gait. Most patients first develop Parkinson’s disease when they are in their sixties, although about five to ten percent contract the disease when they are in their forties, fifties, or even earlier (Parkinson Primer, National Parkinson Foundation). This is known as “early onset Parkinson’s disease.”

Parkinson’s Disease: Brain Chemistry and Symptoms

Parkinson’s disease damages brain cells in the midbrain area called the substantia nigra, which produces dopamine, a chemical important in transmitting signals between parts of the brain. Dopamine loss is responsible for the movement problems caused by Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include slow movements, body stiffness, poor balance, and shaking or tremors, especially when you are at rest. These problems may increase over time. Although Parkinson’s disease is not curable, there are various treatments to ease the symptoms.

Your family physician may find it difficult to diagnose Parkinson’s disease because some of the symptoms are similar to other nervous system disorders. Therefore, it is a good idea to consult a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders. See the Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease for further details.

Welders Have a High Rate of Parkinson’s Disease

Welders develop Parkinson’s disease at a higher rate than other people do, according to Dr. Paul Nausieda, medical director of the Regional Parkinson Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee. He found that among 20,000 welders, 10% had Parkinson’s disease, as compared with the rate of 1% among the general population. A recent study of over 1,400 male welders from Alabama showed a rate of Parkinson’s disease symptoms that was seven to ten times greater than that shown by non–welders in a similar group (Neurology. 2005 Jan 25; 64(2): 230–5). This increased disease rate has been linked to manganese exposure from welding fumes.

Besides developing Parkinson’s disease at a higher rate than other workers do, welders may contract the illness at a younger age. In one study, welders had their first Parkinson’s disease symptoms at the average age of 46, about 17 years before most other Parkinson patients (Neurology 2001 Jan 9; 56(1): 8–13). These welders exhibited classic Parkinson symptoms, and even responded to L–dopa, the marker and treatment for the disease.