Midlife Migraine Linked to Parkinson's Disease

Many migraineurs, especially women, feel better as they age, but a new study has important implications for those who don’t.

A study published this week in Neurology1 suggests that people who experience migraine in middle age are more likely than others to have Parkinson's disease and/or symptoms of Parkinson’s later in life. This was particularly true for women who experienced migraine with aura.

The study was based on data from the Reykjavik (Iceland) Study (RS), a population-based study established in 1967 that followed participants for several decades. Researchers evaluated 5,620 random participants (born between 1907 and 1935) for headache and migraine symptoms at a mean age of 51. According to the study, 3924 participants exhibited no headache symptoms and 1,028 participants had headache but not migraine. The remaining 668 participants met the criteria for migraine, and 430 of those experienced migraine with aura.

Later in life, at a mean age of 77, participants were asked about their motor function, particularly in regard to symptoms related to Parkinson's disease, including tremor, or trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and/or face; rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; bradykinesia, or slowness of movement; and postural instability, or impaired balance and coordination. Researchers also asked participants whether they had a family history of Parkinson’s disease and whether they experienced symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

According to the study, participants with midlife migraine were at least two times more likely to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson's disease in later life than those without migraine. Experiencing migraine with aura upped the odds even more, to 3.6 times the relative risk. (For a detailed breakdown of relative versus absolute risk, read my June article about migraine with aura and stroke.) Women who experienced migraine with aura also were more likely to have a family history of Parkinson's disease.

Though these results sound somewhat frightening, especially for those of us with aura, researchers stress there’s no cause for alarm:

"We should emphasize that while the risk is increased for Parkinson's disease and these [similar] symptoms, they're still uncommon among those with migraine," study author Ann Scher, a professor of epidemiology at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md, told a HealthDay reporter. "I don't think people should necessarily worry that if they have migraines, Parkinson's disease is [in their future]."2

Based on the study’s findings, overall absolute risk for symptoms was 7.5 percent in participants with no history of midlife headache, 12.6 percent in migraineurs with no aura, and 20 percent in migraineurs with aura. Potential reasons for the apparent increase in risk are still being investigated, as are the causes behind Parkinson's disease itself.

At this time, the actual cause of Parkinson's disease, like the cause of migraine, is unknown. Many experts believe the disease is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, though they also tend to believe the exact cause may vary from person to person. Additional risk factors for developing Parkinson’s include being over the age of 60, having a first-degree relative with Parkinson’s, having a family history of other neurologic diseases, having a personal history of depression, ongoing herbicide or pesticide exposure, and certain genetic mutations.

As a female migraineur with aura and a family history of neurological disease, genetic mutation, depression, and Parkinson’s, I’ll be keeping a close watch on this research. My hope is that the link between migraine, particularly migraine with aura, and Parkinson disease will help researchers uncover the causes – and therefore the cures – for both.

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