Long-Term Constipation an Early Sign of Parkinson's?

Medically Reviewed by Jacqueline Brooks, MBBCH, MRCPsych
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 13, 2001 -- Men who suffer a lifetime history of constipation are nearly three times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than men with normal bowel movements, according to a new study. Although constipation itself does not cause Parkinson's disease, long-standing problems could be early evidence of the movement disorder, the authors say.

In 1817, when James Parkinson first described Parkinson's disease, he pointed out that constipation often existed with it, but this is the first study to recognize that we may be able to find early evidence of Parkinson's by looking at other things -- like constipation, says author Robert D. Abbott, PhD, professor of biostatics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, in an interview with WebMD.

In a report in the journal Neurology, Abbott and colleagues at UVA and the Pacific Health Research Institute in Honolulu looked at data from the Honolulu Heart Program, a long-term study of nearly 7,000 men aged 51-75 living on Oahu; 96 of the participants had developed Parkinson's during a 24-year follow-up period.

As part of the study, participants had provided information about the frequency of their bowel movements, allowing the researchers to see whether constipation, a common feature of Parkinson's, could serve as an early indicator of disease.

They found that men who were constipated were 2.7 times more likely than men who had an average of one bowel movement a day, or more, to develop Parkinson's. In addition, risk for developing Parkinson's decreased as the frequency of bowel movements rose.

The results held up even when the researchers took into consideration other factors that could have an effect on Parkinson's disease and digestive-system function, including cigarette smoking, coffee drinking, use of laxatives, and consumption of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Michael Gershon, MD, professor and chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University in New York, tells WebMD that certain features of Parkinson's disease have been found in the part of the nervous system that controls intestinal function.

"What that observation could suggest ... is that the reason these people are constipated is that they've already got Parkinson's disease and that it's showing up in the gut before it's showing up in the brain."

Abbott agrees, and says findings from his study suggest that Parkinson's disease doesn't just involve the brain but could involve other parts of the body, and that information like this could broaden approaches to understanding how the disease develops.

Although constipation by itself is not an accurate predictor of Parkinson's disease, it might be a useful indicator when considered with other possible risk factors such as a family history of Parkinson's, or early signs of movement disorders, Abbott tells WebMD.