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Parkinson's Disease: Estrogen Could Help

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 7, 2001 (Quebec City) -- The debate over whether the female hormone estrogen boosts brainpower continues to rage, although recent evidence suggests that it can be helpful for memory in postmenopausal women. Now, a recent finding shows that it may also be helpful in protecting postmenopausal women from the devastating effects of Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's disease is a condition that usually affects older adults in which the part of the brain responsible for coordinating movement starts to break down. People with the disease thus suffer from difficulty with movement, stiffness, and uncontrollable tremors.

There's much discussion among healthcare professionals about whether women who undergo menopause should take female hormones, including estrogen, to replace those that are no longer being produced by the body.

Hormone replacement therapy is effective in treating the uncomfortable effects that often accompany menopause, such as hot flashes and sexual problems. Recent research suggests it might not have the beneficial effects on the heart many experts hoped it did, but there is good evidence that it does help the brain.

Expert Rachel Saunders-Pullman, MD, and her colleagues looked at the health records of 138 women with Parkinson's disease who had passed menopause. Thirty-four of these women had taken hormone replacement therapy; 102 had not.

Not surprisingly, the longer the women had been suffering from Parkinson's disease, the worse their symptoms were. However, women who had taken hormone replacement therapy had less severe symptoms than those who had never taken estrogen. The older the women were, the bigger the difference in symptoms was between those who had and had not taken estrogen.

According to the researchers, their findings suggest that estrogen might actually help protect the brain from the breakdown that occurs with Parkinson's disease.

Saunders-Pullman is an assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. She presented the current knowledge of estrogen and Parkinson's disease this week at a medical conference held here.

"At this point ... we can't translate this to recommending that someone should or shouldn't take hormone replacement therapy," Saunders-Pullman tells WebMD. However, women who have Parkinson's disease and start or stop taking hormone replacement therapy for other reasons should be aware that doing so could affect their Parkinson's symptoms.

More evidence that estrogen plays a role in Parkinson's disease comes from studies showing that menopausal women with this condition tend to respond better to treatment if they are taking estrogen. Also, women with Parkinson's disease tend to have more difficulty with their symptoms a few days before and during their menstrual period, which suggests that the hormone does have a role.

There is also good evidence that taking estrogen after menopause helps prevent other brain problems that women with Parkinson's disease often suffer from, including memory problems and depression.

Saunders-Pullman expects future research will help clarify the role of estrogen in preventing brain diseases like Parkinson's and that drugs that affect estrogen and other hormones could be used to prevent or treat this condition in both women and men.

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