Parkinson's disease has been known since ancient times, when it was dubbed Kampavata in Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing used in India. In the western world, it was called "shaking palsy" in medical literature as far back as 175 C.E. But it wasn't until 1817 that the condition achieved some real attention. That year, James Parkinson, a physician from London, published "An Essay on the Shaking Palsy." Parkinson hoped his essay would spur others to study this condition, which greatly intrigued him after he noticed six cases both in his practice and around his neighborhood. Some 60 years later, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot took up the challenge and began studying its symptoms and differentiating them from multiple sclerosis (another disease that Charcot was instrumental in identifying). It was Charcot who named the disease Parkinson's [source: Parkinson's].
Parkinson's is characterized by tremors; stiffness and slowness of movement and speech; changes in writing; and impaired posture and balance. It tends to strike those who are older, and while no one knows what causes it, scientists do know a big part of the problem is a dopamine deficiency in the brain. Low levels of dopamine cause certain nerve cells in the brain to deteriorate. Parkinson's isn't a fatal disease, and typically progresses slowly. But complications from the disease can be serious — difficulty in swallowing and frequent falls — which is why complications from Parkinson's is the 14th leading cause of death in the U.S. [sources: Parkinson's, Mayo Clinic, National Parkinson Foundation].