There’s nothing more difficult than finding out that you or your loved one has an incurable illness. Parkinson’s disease (PD), a common neurological disorder that worsens with time, affects the whole body by causing uncontrollable movements, fatigue, depression, memory difficulties, and more. Studies on potential treatments are ongoing — current therapies and medications are capable of substantially reducing symptoms — and new research often yields encouraging results.
Today, there is very good news: The American Academy of Neurology just published a study that found Parkinson’s patients who gain or maintain their weight are less likely to experience rapid cognitive decline.
Why the Researchers Tested Weight Changes in Parkinson’s
The list of early Parkinson’s symptoms is long — tremors, small handwriting (caused by damage to fine motor skills), loss of smell, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty moving or walking, constipation, and a masked face (a blank or stern expression, which is caused by stiff facial muscles and nerve cell damage) are just a few. However, there’s another symptom that we don’t discuss enough: weight changes.
“Early weight loss is a common symptom in people with Parkinson’s disease,” study author Jin-Sun Jun, MD, of Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital in Seoul, Korea, said in a press release. Dr. Jun and the other study authors theorized that a rapid change in weight could signal cognitive decline in Parkinson’s patients. So, they put it to the test.
Observing the Thinking Skills of Parkinson’s Patients
To find out whether weight loss or gain has an impact on a PD patient’s brain health, the researchers recruited 358 Parkinson’s patients with an average age of 61. All participants had recently received a diagnosis, and none one of them were taking PD medications.
Every year over the course of about eight years, participants took tests to measure their thinking skills, depression symptoms, anxiety, and sleep issues. The researchers also measured weight changes. To account for normal and minor weight fluctuations, the study authors counted weight gain or loss as a change of at least 3 percent of a person’s body weight.
After compiling the data, the researchers divided the Parkinson’s patients into three groups: those who gained weight (59 patients), lost weight (98), or maintained their weight (201). Here’s what the study authors found: Participants who lost weight experienced the most rapid decline in brain health. The areas of their cognition that declined the most? Verbal fluency skills, which signals poor executive function. (Executive function is an umbrella term for mental skills like memory, self control, and focus.)
In contrast, participants who gained or maintained their weight had a slower decline in their test scores. On a test of processing speed, participants who gained weight had the slowest decline in test scores. (Processing speed is a measure of time required to respond to or process information.)
The research team also performed tests covering thinking skills, depression, anxiety, and sleep issues on people who did not have PD. This helped them determine whether weight loss or weight gain — without a Parkinson’s diagnosis — affected brain health. People in this group who gained or lost weight didn’t experience any changes in their cognitive or mental health, implying that a combination of Parkinson’s and weight changes is what affects brain health.
The Impact of This Study
What does this research mean for people with Parkinson’s? “These findings highlight the potential importance of weight management in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Jun said. So, if you recently received a PD diagnosis, consider making weight management a high priority. Make sure you are eating a variety of healthy foods each day, and emphasize your fiber intake if constipation is one of your symptoms.
Keep in mind that losing weight doesn’t necessarily hurt your cognition if you have Parkinson’s, and gaining weight won’t necessarily improve your brain health. The study does not prove that weight changes impact thinking skills — it only shows an association. “Further studies are needed to determine whether taking steps to prevent weight loss could slow cognitive decline in people with Parkinson’s,” Dr. Jun said. For more resources on Parkinson’s, including a dietary guideline, visit the Parkinson’s Foundation website.
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