You’re referring to results of a study published in August (2020) suggesting that a healthy diet in middle age may prevent symptoms of Parkinson’s that develop 10 or more years before the onset of the movement problems characteristic of the disease. These symptoms include constipation, daytime sleepiness and depression.
Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder worldwide after Alzheimer’s disease. It affects nerve cells in the part of the mid-brain known as the substantia nigra, responsible for muscle movement. The result is tremors, rigidity, slow movements, and difficulties with balance. The disease is progressive, eventually leading to disability and cognitive problems, including dementia. But it often develops slowly, causing only minor disability for a number of years following diagnosis.
The news that a healthy diet during mid-life may help prevent very early symptoms of Parkinson’s comes from a Harvard University study that involved 47,679 people who were asked about their diet every four years beginning in the 1980s when they were middle-aged. In 2012, they were asked whether they had constipation and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (in which people act out their dreams by flailing arms, shouting or screaming). Both are common in people who are later diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
In 2014-2015, the researchers asked 17,400 of the study participants if they experienced five other symptoms that can precede Parkinson’s: loss of sense of smell, impaired color vision, excessive daytime sleepiness, body pain, and depression. Lead study author, Samantha Molsberry, Ph.D., noted that while these symptoms are associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s, especially in combination, experiencing any or several of them does not necessarily mean that an individual will develop the disease.
The researchers also investigated how closely the participants followed diets similar to the Mediterranean diet or the Alternate Healthy Eating Index, both of which emphasize consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes and discourage eating red meat. The team reported that people whose adherence to these diets was highest were less likely to develop three or more symptoms that precede Parkinson’s than study participants with the lowest adherence to the diets.
The researchers also noted that consuming a moderate amount of alcohol (no more than one drink per day for women or two for men) was associated with a lower risk of developing three or more of the symptoms that precede Parkinson’s.
Dr. Molsberry said that while the study doesn’t show cause and effect, it provides yet another reason for consuming more vegetables, nuts and legumes. She added that more research is needed to determine whether eating a healthy diet can delay or even prevent the development of Parkinson’s in people who already have symptoms that precede the disease.
These are welcome new findings. If you’re concerned about Parkinson’s disease and are following my Anti-Inflammatory Diet, you’re already ahead of the game.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Samantha Molsberry et al, “Diet pattern and prodromal features of Parkinson’s disease,” Neurology, August 19,2020, DOI: doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000010523