Parkinson's Disease Dementia

alence of Parkinson's Disease

After Alzheimer's disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder is Parkinson’s disease. In the U.S., at least 500,000 are believed to have Parkinson’s, and about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed every year1 (I have seen other estimates of 1 million and 1.5 million — and researchers saying the numbers are consistently over-estimated while others that they are consistently under-estimated!). In the U.K., the numbers are 120,000 and 10,0002.

Part of the problem in estimating national and global prevalence is that Parkinson's is very much affected by environmental factors. The Amish, Nebraska, the area around the ferromanganese plants in Breccia (Italy), and the Parsi of Mumbai (India), have the highest rates of Parkinson's in the world. Pesticide use, and some occupations and foods, are all thought to increase the risk of Parkinson's. So is head trauma.

There may also be ethnic differences. A recent analysis of Medicare data3 from more than 450,000 patients with PD in the United States has found substantial variation between whites, African Americans, and Asians, with whites showing dramatically greater rates (158.21 per 100,000 in white men compared to 75.57 and 84.95 for African Americans and Asians, respectively). These differences, however, may well reflect factors other than ethnicity, given the significant role that environmental factors play in Parkinson's. Most patients were found to live in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions (areas with very high proportions of whites).

Of course Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, is a disorder of age (although in both cases, a minority suffer early onset). Figures from a 1997 European study4 that estimated the overall, age-adjusted prevalence in Europe at 1.6% gave this age breakdown:
65-69: 0.6%
70-74: 1.0%
75-79: 2.7%
80-84: 3.6%
85-89: 3.5%
As you can see, there is a sharp rise in the later half of the 70s, rising to a peak in the 80s (studies suggest it declines in the 90s).

Risk of developing dementia

Parkinson’s is of course primarily a movement disorder, not a cognitive one. However, it can lead to dementia. As with the numbers of Parkinson's sufferers, the risk of that is so variously estimated that estimates range from 20-80%!

Part of the problem is disentangling mortality — as with Alzheimer’s, many die before the symptoms of dementia have had time to develop. It is helpful to deconstruct that top statistic.

The 2003 Norwegian study5 that appears to be the source of this 80% calculated an 8-year prevalence estimate of 78.2% from an 8 year study involving 224 Parkinson’s patients. At the beginning of the study, 51 of these 224 had dementia. After 4 years, 36 of the non-demented had died, and 7 refused to continue their participation; of the 51 demented, 42 had died (according to my calculations – this figure, and several others, were not given). Of the 139 patients remaining in the study at year 4, 43 of the previously non-demented had developed dementia, meaning (according to my calculations) that 52 in total now had dementia, and 87 had not. After another 4 years, there were only 87 patients remaining in the study, 19 of those 87 non-demented having died, a further 3 refusing to continue, and (my calculation) 30 of the 52 demented having died. At this time, year 8, 28 of the previously non-demented had now developed dementia, leaving (my calculation) 37 non-demented survivors.

In other words, over a period of 8 years, after having had Parkinson’s for over 9 years, on average, when the study began, just over half (54.5%; 122/224) developed dementia. About the same number (56.7%; 127) had died. At that point, after having had Parkinson’s for an average of 17 years (they were now on average 73 years old), 50 (22%) were still alive but with dementia, and 37 (16.5%) were still alive and non-demented (the percentage is only slightly increased by subtracting those who refused to continue participating).

Importantly, those 37 had no more cognitive decline than was evident in age-matched controls.

Note also that the average life expectancy after being diagnosed with Parkinson's is about 9 years -- hence, those who participated were already at this point at the beginning of the study. We don't know how many people developed dementia and died between diagnosis and the study beginning, but we do know that 23% (51/224) had dementia at the beginning of the study, after having had Parkinson's for an average of 11 years (their average was higher than the group average) -- which is already longer than the average survival rate.

In other words, we need a study that follows PD sufferers from diagnosis until death to truly give an accurate estimate of the likelihood of developing dementia before death. We can however give an estimate of how many people survive PD for 17 years (nearly twice the average survival time) without developing dementia: 16.5% -- which is approaching half (42.5%) the number of people who survive that long.

We can also estimate how many PD sufferers who have had PD for an average of 9 years will not have dementia: 77% (173/224 — the number of non-demented at the beginning of the study). And how many will not have dementia after 13 years: 63% (87/139 — the number of non-demented at year 4 of the study).

The big question is of course, are there any signs that indicate which individuals will develop dementia. The researchers found6 that age, hallucinations, and more severe motor problems were all risk factors for developing dementia.

For more on Parkinson's:

Check out this youtube video:

See these websites:

Check out these books:


  1. From the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website:
  2. From the National Health Service website:
  3. De Rijk, M.C. et al. 1997. Prevalence of parkinsonism and Parkinson's disease in Europe: the EUROPARKINSON Collaborative Study. European Community Concerted Action on the Epidemiology of Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 62(1), 10-5.
  4. De Rijk, M.C. et al. 1997. Prevalence of parkinsonism and Parkinson's disease in Europe: the EUROPARKINSON Collaborative Study. European Community Concerted Action on the Epidemiology of Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 62(1), 10-5.
  5. Aarsland, D. et al. 2003. Prevalence and characteristics of dementia in Parkinson disease: an 8-year prospective study. Archives of Neurology, 60(3), 387-92.
  6. Aarsland, D. et al. 2004. The Rate of Cognitive Decline in Parkinson Disease. Archives of Neurology, 61, 1906-1911.