Parkinson's disease: Exercise may help lower risk

  • A study called E3N followed more than 90,000 women for almost 3 decades to learn more about how lifestyle factors affect women’s health.
  • Scientists from France used data from the study to see if there is an association between exercise and developing Parkinson’s disease.
  • The researchers grouped the women depending on how much physical activity they reported regularly getting.
  • After analyzing the results, the scientists learned that women in the group that had the highest levels of physical activity had the lowest rate of developing Parkinson’s disease.

New research published in the journal Neurology shows that regular exercise may offer some benefits against Parkinson’s disease.

According to the findings, women who spent the most time either exercising or engaging in other physical activities had a 25% lower rate of Parkinson’s disease prevalence compared to those who undertook the least amount of exercise.

It is important to note, however, that these study results show only an association between exercise and Parkinson’s risk. Scientists must conduct more research to prove that exercise directly lowers the risk of developing the disease.

Four activity-level groups

The scientists accessed data from the E3N study, which includes data from nearly 100,000 women tracked over almost 3 decades. The researchers of E3N began collecting data in 1990 and included women born between the years 1925 and 1950.

The women provided access to their medical files, so the researchers in the current project had information such as doctor’s notes, imaging results, and medications.

The participants also answered questionnaires throughout the study, which addressed activity levels. Some of the questions included how much the participants walked on a daily basis, how much time they spent doing things around the house, and how much time they spent weekly on recreational exercise.

The researchers collected information on the types and intensity of physical activities and exercise. They then assigned the women scores based on the metabolic equivalent of a task (METs), or how much energy is spent on a task.

The researchers divided the women into four groups based on their self-reported activity level. From there, they looked at how prevalent a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis was among each group.

Is exercise key to lower Parkinson’s risk?

Throughout the study, 1,074 women developed Parkinson’s disease, which is roughly 1% of the entire participant pool.

After analyzing data from the four groups of women, the scientists found that the group that exercised the least had more cases of Parkinson’s disease.

In comparison, the group that exercised the most had a 25% reduced rate of developing Parkinson’s disease.

This makes the researchers think that regular exercise and other physical activities may be helpful in reducing the risk of developing the disease.

The researchers also factored in questionnaires that assessed the effect of physical activity up to 10, 15, or 20 years before diagnosis. They believe this shows that exercise may have a preventive effect on the disease.

“Our results extend these findings and suggest that physical activity may help prevent or delay [Parkinson’s disease] onset, possibly by slowing [Parkinson’s] pathological processes,” write the authors.

While the findings are considered an association, study author Dr. Alexis Elbaz, a professor at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, France, believes this research could help with preventing the disease.

“Exercise is a low-cost way to improve health overall, so our study sought to determine if it may be linked to a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating disease that has no cure,” says Dr. Elbaz. “Our results provide evidence for planning interventions to prevent Parkinson’s disease.”

Experts weigh in on Parkinson’s and exercise

Dr. Kathy Doubleday, a physical therapist who leads a specialized exercise program for Parkinson’s patients, and the co-founder of Physio Ed. in Ojai, CA, spoke with Medical News Today about the study findings.

“The findings support the idea that ‘exercise is medicine’,” commented Dr. Doubleday.

“There are substantial effects of exercise on the brain structure and chemistry, and this study has shown that in women there was an inverse relationship between activity level and [Parkinson’s disease] onset. In physical therapy, we rely highly on the use of exercise to maintain function, adaptability, resilience and to control symptoms in [Parkinson’s disease], so it makes sense to me that the findings showed that those in this large cohort that were more active would have a more delayed or absent onset.”

– Dr. Kathy Doubleday

Dr. Daniel Truong, a neurologist and medical director of The Parkinson’s and Movement Disorder Institute at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, not involved in the research also spoke with MNT about the study.

“These results demonstrate a protective effect of physical activity against [Parkinson’s disease] development in women,” commented Dr. Truong.

“Analyzing trajectories of physical activity in both [Parkinson’s disease] cases and matched controls revealed that physical activity levels were significantly lower in [Parkinson’s] cases compared to controls throughout the entire follow-up period, including as early as 29 years before diagnosis,” Dr. Truong continued.

“This finding suggests that reduced physical activity might be an early marker or risk factor for [Parkinson’s disease] development in women.”

Parkinson’s disease overview

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that impacts movements and coordination. As time goes on, the disease becomes progressively worse.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the disease “affects predominantly the dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra.”

Dopamine is a chemical messenger involved in movement regulation.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) notes that around 500,000 people in the United States have Parkinson’s disease, and the average age at which doctors diagnose it is 60 years. However, symptoms can begin more than a decade before a person receives a diagnosis.

The cause of Parkinson’s disease is not clearly known, but scientists think that environmental factors may contribute to the risk.

Additionally, sometimes genetics factor into someone developing the disease. According to the NINDS, between 15% and 25% of people who get Parkinson’s disease have a family history of it.

Some signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • tremors
  • slow movement (also known as bradykinesia)
  • muscle rigidity
  • balance problems

Unlike with other diseases, there is no single test to confirm Parkinson’s disease, and oftentimes diagnosis can take years. Doctors may come to the diagnosis after ruling out other possible causes for symptoms.

There is also no cure for Parkinson’s, but medications, physical therapy, and occupational therapy can help manage symptoms.

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