Parkinson’s disease involves symptoms of slowed movement, stiffness, shaking and poor balance due to loss of certain brain cells. The reason this happens in most people is unknown. However, a number of risk factors have been identified that may combine to increase, or decrease, the chances of developing Parkinson’s disease. Some of these — like aging and environmental and toxic exposures — can’t be controlled. Others like diet, caffeine intake, smoking and exercise can be modified.
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People with Parkinson’s disease lose brain cells that make the chemical dopamine, which the brain uses to send signals about movement. Scientists have tried to identify lifestyle factors that could slow this process. According to the March 2014 issue of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, a number of studies have shown beneficial effects of caffeine on the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and on its progression. In some cases, men had a more positive response than women, which may be related to the hormone estrogen. Caffeine is still being studied, so it is not clear how much or what type of caffeine provides the greatest benefit.
According to the March 2014 issue of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk of Parkinson’s disease. However, the ideal components of this diet haven’t been established yet. The association between consumption of dairy products and risk of Parkinson’s disease is unclear. Nevertheless, it is vital to maintain adequate calcium intake to prevent osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. Black and green teas, in particular the components in green tea called polyphenols, are currently being studied to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. A number of vitamins and supplements have also been studied to see if they can slow the progression of the disease, including vitamin E, coenzyme Q10 and creatine. So far, none of these have been shown to be effective.
Tobacco and Alcohol Use
Smoking is associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. However, this does not outweigh the many other serious health risks that smoking presents. The chemical nicotine, found in cigarette smoke, is under investigation as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, along with drugs that mimic its effects in the brain. Alcohol consumption plays an unclear role in the risk of Parkinson’s disease, with conflicting results from different studies.
According to the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Clinical Neurology, physically active people may be less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. However, this could be partly because people with very early Parkinson’s disease are already less active. Once people have developed the disease, physical activity can help with symptoms. Physical therapy, including exercises like walking on a treadmill, appears to improve balance, walking and cardiovascular fitness in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Environmental and Toxic Exposures
An increased risk of Parkinson’s disease has been found in association with exposure to certain environmental toxins, which are generally not under a person’s control. Examples include pesticides like paraquat, dieldrin and 2,4-D — a component of Agent Orange — as well as permethrin and rotenone. Involvement in farming, living in a rural area and drinking well water also place a person at higher risk of Parkinson’s disease, perhaps due to pesticide exposure. Chronic lead exposure has been associated with Parkinson’s disease too. Finally, the toxin MPTP, a by-product of homemade heroin production, produces a syndrome similar to Parkinson’s disease.