Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.
Parkinson’s disease symptoms tend to worsen over time. People with Parkinson’s disease have lost dopamine-producing neurons in a region of the brain called the substantia nigra. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that transmits signals between the substantia nigra and a region of the brain called the corpus striatum to produce smooth, purposeful movement. Loss of dopamine results in abnormal nerve firing patterns within the brain that cause impaired movement. Medications can help manage the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but there is no cure.
Some key questions about who is most at risk for developing Parkinson’s disease include:
What age groups are most likely to develop Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s disease typically begins between the ages of 55 and 65, and the risk continues to rise as people age. An estimated 1% of people over age 60 have Parkinson’s disease. That number rises to 4-5% of people over age 85. While young-onset Parkinson’s can develop between the ages of 21-50, this only accounts for about 4% of cases.
Age Ranges for Parkinson’s Onset
|21-50 years old
|4% of cases (young-onset)
|Over 60 years old
|1% of cases
|Over 85 years old
|4-5% of cases
So while Parkinson’s can occur in younger adults, the vast majority of cases develop after age 60, with likelihood increasing dramatically by age 85.
Does gender impact Parkinson’s risk?
Yes, gender does seem to impact Parkinson’s risk. Men have about 1.5 times greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease compared to women.
Some key gender differences include:
- Parkinson’s onset about 3 years earlier in men than women on average
- Men tend to progress faster after diagnosis
- Men have higher rates of asymmetry of symptoms early on
The exact reasons for these gender differences are still being researched, but may involve hormonal differences as well as differences in toxin exposure and head trauma rates between men and women.
Does family history increase risk?
Having a close family member with Parkinson’s does increase your risk of developing the disease. About 15-25% of people with Parkinson’s have a first-degree relative with the disease.
Having a parent or sibling with Parkinson’s increases your lifetime risk about 2-4 fold. For example, someone with an affected parent has about a 4% lifetime risk of Parkinson’s, compared to about 1% in the general population.
However, the vast majority of Parkinson’s cases do not seem to have a clear genetic link. Only about 10% of cases can be traced to specific genetic mutations. Researchers believe both genetic and environmental factors contribute to overall risk.
Do toxins or head trauma increase risk?
Exposure to certain environmental toxins has been linked to increased Parkinson’s risk, including:
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Industrial chemicals like trichloroethylene
- Heavy metals like lead, mercury, and manganese
Jobs with chemical exposures like farming, factory work, and welding may carry higher risk. Head trauma has also been associated with increased Parkinson’s risk. One study found people who experienced a traumatic brain injury were 56% more likely to develop Parkinson’s.
Does ethnicity or race affect Parkinson’s risk?
There do appear to be some ethnic and racial differences in Parkinson’s prevalence. Studies in the U.S. and internationally have found:
- Caucasians have the highest age-adjusted Parkinson’s rates
- Hispanics have lower rates than Caucasians
- African-Americans and Asians have the lowest rates
However, the reasons for these differences are still unclear. More research is needed to determine whether genetic or socioeconomic factors play a role.
Do diet, exercise, or habits affect risk?
Research into lifestyle factors that may impact Parkinson’s risk is still ongoing, but some links have been suggested:
- Smoking – Smokers and people who have quit have up to a 60% lower Parkinson’s risk.
- Caffeine – Moderate coffee consumption may decrease risk by 32-60%.
- Exercise – Consistent exercise may lower risk by 33-80%.
- Head injury – Traumatic brain injury increases risk up to 56%.
- Pesticide exposure – Can double or triple Parkinson’s risk.
More research is still needed, but avoiding neurotoxins and maintaining healthy lifestyle habits may help lower Parkinson’s risk.
Who is most at risk?
Based on the evidence, those at highest risk for Parkinson’s include:
- Those over 60 years old
- People exposed to pesticides/neurotoxins
- People with a family history of Parkinson’s
- Those who experienced past head trauma
- Those who don’t exercise regularly
So while Parkinson’s can affect anyone, these groups appear to have the highest overall risk. Being aware of risk factors allows people to make informed choices to maximize health and potentially reduce Parkinson’s risk.
Parkinson’s disease is a complex neurodegenerative disorder influenced by many factors. Age is the biggest risk factor, with most cases developing after age 60. Men also have a higher lifetime risk than women. Family history, chemical exposures, head trauma, and lifestyle habits like smoking and exercise may also impact risk. While research continues, being aware of these factors can help certain groups take steps to preserve health and potentially lower their Parkinson’s risk through preventative lifestyle measures.