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Parkinson’s risk is twice as high for older adults with anxiety - study

Parkinson's risk is higher for older individuals with anxiety, a new study has found.
Parkinson's risk is higher for older individuals with anxiety, a new study has found. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Gabriela Galvin
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New research shows that adults who develop anxiety for the first time later in life are more likely to go on to develop the neurodegenerative condition.

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People with anxiety have twice the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease compared with their non-anxious peers, according to a large new study in the United Kingdom.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) used data for nearly 988,000 patients ages 50 and older from 2008 to 2018 to identify how anxiety affects Parkinson’s risk while accounting for other known factors such as age, sex, social isolation, severe mental illness, dementia, head trauma, and lifestyle.

They found that patients who were diagnosed with anxiety for the first time as older adults were twice as likely to go on to develop Parkinson’s – suggesting it could be an early warning sign of the neurodegenerative condition.

That’s significant because doctors don’t always consider a patient’s history of anxiety when assessing them for Parkinson’s. The UK’s Parkinson’s diagnostic criteria, for example, focuses on motor problems.

“It's not a hard-and-fast line, unfortunately, but that's why this research is really good, because it actually gives more justification for anxiety to be an early question,” Amelia Hursey, research manager at Parkinson's Europe, told Euronews Health.

Among patients with anxiety in the study, a handful of symptoms were also associated with a higher Parkinson’s risk. These included depression, sleep problems, fatigue, cognitive impairment, low blood pressure, constipation, and motor issues such as tremor, rigidity, and balance issues – but not shoulder pain, dizziness, erectile or urinary dysfunction.

It took a median of 4.9 years after a doctor first noticed a patient’s anxiety for them to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

The findings, published in the British Journal of General Practice, could help doctors identify which patients are at higher risk of Parkinson’s, potentially speeding up diagnoses and improving treatment in the early stages.

Hursey said that for researchers, earlier diagnoses could offer clues about the root of the problem, given there are no cures for Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s is one of the most common neurodegenerative conditions, affecting an estimated 11.8 million people worldwide. Diagnoses are more common in older people, men, and those of higher socioeconomic status, and prevalence has increased over the past 25 years.

Anxiety is a common symptom of Parkinson’s as a result of changes in brain chemistry, rather than simply a reaction to diagnosis, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.Other studies have shown that anxiety can limit Parkinson’s patients’ quality of life and increase the burden on their caregivers.

Even so, the UCL researchers said not enough is known about how newly developed anxiety – and the severity of people’s anxiety – could impact their Parkinson’s risk as they age.

People with anxiety shouldn’t worry about developing Parkinson’s, Hursey cautioned. Rather, the findings indicate that anxiety fits in with the “whole suite of symptoms” stemming from the condition.

“Every little bit of information about the lived experience of people with Parkinson's, or people who may be at high risk of Parkinson's, is crucial in us moving a step towards understanding the underlying mechanisms,” Hursey said.

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