Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that results from the impairment of nerve cells in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. As these nerve cells die, less dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the brain, resulting in symptoms including uncontrollable movements and difficulty with balance and coordination.
As symptoms of Parkinson’s disease worsen over time, symptoms may also include mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, and worsening memory. These symptoms can be improved by using medications that stimulate the production of dopamine in the brain, inhibiting the enzymes that break down dopamine, and reducing involuntary movements.
Compared to healthy adults, individuals with Parkinson’s disease tend to have lower levels of physical activity. New research from the Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity suggests that individuals with Parkinson’s disease who maintain physical activity are at a significantly lower risk for developing cognitive impairment and dementia.
The researchers looked at data from a longitudinal cohort study called the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI). This study followed 307 individuals who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and benchmarked their levels of physical activity along with symptoms of cognitive impairment. Within the study cohort, those who engaged in less physical activity tended to have a worse cognitive status.
The researchers noted that “overall, findings provide support for the clinical importance of physical activity among individuals with Parkinson’s disease.”
Unlike previous studies, this cohort study did not confound the results of increased physical activity with the severity of Parkinson’s disease-related motor symptoms. “One unique aspect of the current findings is that physical activity was associated with cognitive impairment independently of motor severity,” the researchers said.
“Additionally, all participants were relatively newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (second year of diagnosis), which reduces concerns that differences in disease duration may be confounding the association between physical activity and cognitive impairment.”
The researchers note that additional studies are needed to determine how these findings may be used in a clinical setting. It may be beneficial for clinicians to promote routine physical activity in Parkinson’s disease patients.