Can You Die From Parkinson's Disease?
A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD), like any other chronic and incurable disease, can be life-altering, scary, and nerve-wracking. There are a lot of misconceptions about PD, and being aware of misinformation about the disease is helpful to have an accurate outlook about the disease and prognosis.
One of the myths about PD is that it’s a death sentence; this is not true. Knowing the facts about PD and how to live with the condition is crucial to living a full life with PD and being an active participant in your care.
Many people think PD automatically means a shorter lifespan, but this isn’t necessarily true. The area is under-researched, and the research that has been done has yielded variable results.
A study done at the Mayo Clinic found that overall, patients with PD had similar lifespans to those without PD, but if PD dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies were present, that did contribute to increased mortality rates.1
For those with typical PD without dementia, compared to the general population, they died approximately a year earlier. Parkinson's is not a direct killer like heart attack, and there are steps individuals can take to help maintain their functioning and health.1,2
Risk of falling
Parkinson's does not directly kill people with the condition; people with PD die from other causes, not from PD itself. Two major causes of death for those with PD are falls and pneumonia.
People with PD are at higher risk of falling, and serious falls that require surgery carry the risk of infection, adverse events with medication and anesthesia, heart failure, and blood clots from immobility.3
Pneumonia is a common cause of death, and those with PD are at risk for aspiration pneumonia. People with PD often have problems with swallowing, so the risk of aspirating food or drink, or having food or drink going “down the wrong [wind] pipe” is higher.3
In Parkinson's, the person may not be able to cough up the food or drink they aspirated, and it can remain in the lungs, eventually causing an infection.3
Even with general pneumonia, when coughing is weakened, as in PD, the mucus and other material that needs to be coughed up isn’t able to be expelled, and this makes effective treatment of pneumonia more difficult in those with PD.3
Death certificate inaccuracies
In general, the diseases that kill other people in the general population, like cancer and heart disease, are also the diseases that kill most people with PD as well.
A lot of people don’t realize this, and to further confound the issue, on the death certificates of those with PD, oftentimes it will be written that the cause of death is listed as “Parkinson’s disease.”4
Inaccuracies in death certificates is a known problem, stemming from lack of training and guidance. While PD may be a contributing peripheral factor in a person’s death, it may then be written as cause of death, thus causing confusion on the part of family members and contributing to inaccurate health statistics.4
PD is not the direct cause of death for these patients, but rather complications stemming from PD may be the true cause.4
Managing your health
Patients living with PD can take steps to ensure they get quality care from their healthcare team, as well as take good care of themselves.
Staying as active as possible with help from an occupational therapist (OT) who can show you how to modify daily activities, eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, and taking medications as prescribed can all help optimize your health and promote well-being.
Talking with the doctor about any challenges or concerns can also help you brainstorm solutions to problems or help create a plan to address issues.
Depression and anxiety
Don't neglect emotional health, as well. Depression and anxiety affect up to half of those living with PD. Mood disorders and changes like these can actually worsen symptoms and affect overall health, so proper treatment is crucial.5
Tell the doctor if you’re noticing changes in mood at all, so this can be addressed with treatment. Whether it’s medication, counseling, or both. Spending time with other people – friends, family members, activity groups – can also help decrease feelings of isolation or loneliness.
While living with PD is life-changing, it is not a death sentence. Learning more about the condition, as well as treatment options and how to make adaptations for your lifestyle can be helpful.
Every person is different, so talk with the treatment team about any concerns you have. Remember that most people with PD live about as long as their general population peers, and die of the same diseases as the general population – not PD.
Do you participate in a support group for PD?