The first thing to understand when seeking an estimate regarding life expectancy for any patient is that the answer is never definite. Each person is different and there is no formula for determining exactly how quickly a chronic disease will progress, how seriously it will affect the body, or whether additional complications may develop along the way.
Parkinson’s Disease Is a Progressive Disorder
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that primarily affects movement and, in some cases, cognition. Individuals with PD may have a slightly shorter life span compared to healthy individuals of the same age group. According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, patients usually begin developing Parkinson’s symptoms around age 60 and many live between 10 and 20 years after being diagnosed. However, a patient’s age and general health status at onset factor into the accuracy of this estimate. Age is the greatest risk factor for this condition, but young-onset Parkinson’s disease, which affects people before age 50, accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of PD cases.
While there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, many patients are only mildly affected and need no treatment for several years after their initial diagnosis. However, PD is both chronic, meaning it persists over a long period of time, and progressive, meaning its symptoms grow worse over time. This progression occurs more quickly in some people than in others.
Pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions can help manage some of the symptoms, like bradykinesia (slowness of movement), rigidity or tremor (shaking), but not much can be done to slow the overall progression of the disease. Over time, shaking, which affects most PD patients, may begin to interfere with activities of daily living (ADLs) and one’s quality of life.
Is Parkinson’s Fatal?
It is important to understand that PD is not considered a fatal condition. As is the case with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, complications and a patient’s comorbid conditions are more life-threatening than PD itself. For example, because Parkinson’s affects movement, balance and coordination, a patient’s risk of falling increases as the disease progresses. Falls are notoriously dangerous and a leading cause of injury and death among older adults. Difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, is another complication that can develop at any point throughout one’s journey with PD, and this can cause aspiration pneumonia—another leading cause of death in patients.
Read: Dysphagia: How to Help a Loved One Eat and Drink Safely
Because a person’s overall health is a significant factor in how Parkinson’s progresses, smart lifestyle choices are vital for prolonging both functionality and longevity. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, careful management of preexisting conditions and prevention of new medical issues is crucial.
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The life expectancy of Parkinson’s patients has improved significantly over the past decades thanks to medical advances in symptom management and the development of a comprehensive approach to patient care. In fact, recent research confirms that the average life expectancy for a patient with PD onset at age 60 is 23.3 years (83.3 total years of age). This is directly comparable to the latest United States Life Tables published in 2020 as part of the National Vital Statistics Reports. This report found that the average person aged 60 in 2018 could also expect to live an average of 23.3 years, for a total of 83.3 years.
It is important to work with a well-rounded medical team to understand PD symptoms, explore treatment options and devise a personalized care plan for improving one’s overall health, maintaining a high quality of life, and preventing complications.