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Can Painkillers Prevent Parkinson's?

Parkinson's Disease Risk Lower in Users of Over-the-Counter Pain Pills
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 5, 2007 -- Frequent users of over-the-counter pain pills such as ibuprofen have a lower risk of Parkinson's disease, UCLA researchers find.

The finding supports earlier studies suggesting that inflammation-fighting drugs prevent Parkinson's disease -- and maybe other neurodegenerative diseases, too. As their name implies, the painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce inflammation. These drugs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin are common brand names), and naproxen (Aleve is a common brand name).

Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, UCLA professor of epidemiology, environmental health sciences, and neurology, and colleagues enrolled 293 Parkinson's patients within three years of their diagnosis. They also enrolled 286 people without Parkinson's disease matching the patients in age, race, and sex.

They found that regular users of NSAIDS other than aspirin had a 48% lower risk of Parkinson's disease. Those who took non-aspirin NSAIDs for two or more years had a 56% lower risk of Parkinson's disease.

Women who took aspirin also had a lower risk of Parkinson's disease. This wasn't true for men who took aspirin.

"There may be something going on in the process leading to Parkinson's disease that can be suppressed with an anti-inflammatory medication," Ritz tells WebMD.

Inflammation: Key to Parkinson's Disease?

Inflammation is one of the body's most basic and most powerful immune responses. Inflammation that goes on too long, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, results in a number of diseases.

Parkinson's disease is not usually considered an inflammatory disease. During Parkinson's disease, there's a die-off of brain cells that make dopamine, a vital chemical messenger. Ritz suggests that this process may begin with the death of a few dopamine-producing cells.

"There's always a little inflammation when cells die," Ritz says. "These clean-up crews of cells with immune function show up and release substances that attract other cells that give off inflammatory signals. This inflammation impairs the working dopamine-producing cells in some way and maybe even kills them."

If a person were taking NSAIDs at the time this process began, Ritz suggests, the drugs might dampen these overactive immune responses and stop the vicious cycle leading to Parkinson's disease.

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