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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Midlife migraine and late-life parkinsonism. Available at: http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2014/09/17/WNL.0000000000000840.short. Accessed September 19, 2014
  2. Migraines in Middle Age, Parkinson's Risk Later?. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/news/20140917/are-migraines-in-middle-age-tied-to-raised-parkinsons-risk-later. Accessed September 19, 2014.

Comments

  • Luna
    5 years ago

    There is a saying that genetics loads the gun and lifestyle pulls the trigger. So healthy diet, healthy lifestyle, healthy thinking and healthy gut all seem to work together. And do not stress about any of this. Stress is a big health risk. Bad for the mind, body and gut. Do the best you can under your circumstances.

  • D Williams
    5 years ago

    So does this mean those of us who started having migraines in our middle school years and still have them into their over 45 years have a even better chance of getting Parkinson’s? It is bad enough to have to worry about getting Dementia since for me a grandmother and her sister had it. Sometimes I really hate hearing about these studies since they are not always complete and don’t always take in consideration people who have migraines from youth or later in life. What is the new age for middle life now? It always seems to change every couple of years.

  • Sarah Hackley author
    5 years ago

    D,

    I don’t have an answer for that, unfortunately. The study only asked people about their migraine symptoms around age 55. I don’t believe they were asked anything about their migraine symptoms prior to the study starting, or if they were the authors of the study didn’t find that information relevant to their findings. I understand your frustration. I started having chronic migraine in adolescence, and I have multiple family members with Parkinson’s disease, so I’m eager/anxious to hear more about this, especially since I continue to have them today (and I experience aura). However, I am only 31, and I believe the current “definition” for midlife is from about 45 to about 55 years of age. Though, that tends to change. Hopefully there will be follow-up studies and we can find out more in the future. For now, I would follow the researchers’ advice and try not to be scared, especially if you don’t have aura.

  • Luna
    5 years ago

    Just read an article “The Bowels” that relates to this.
    One of the major interests of Heiko Braak, MD of the Institute for Clinical Neuro-anatomy in Germany is Parkinson’s disease. It is associated with loss of brain cells that produce dopamine. Abnormal clumps (Lewy bodies) of proteins have been found in the brains of people afflicted with Parkinson’s which are also associated with dementia. Braak has found that these Lewy bodies also show up in dopamine-producing neurons in the gut. Based on his research and the distribution of Lewy bodies in people who died of Parkinson’s, Braak thinks that Parkinson’s starts in the gut, as a result of an environmental trigger and then spreads to the brain. There are some who see the same clumps in the brains and guts of people with Alzheimer’s.

  • Sarah Hackley author
    5 years ago

    That’s an interesting theory. I haven’t read about that, though I know the “causes” for Parkinson’s are still under investigation. I’ll certainly be watching at this research grows. Thank you for reading!

  • Luna
    5 years ago

    Google Heiko Braak, MD and there are several articles about him. Here is one of them.

    https://www.michaeljfox.org/foundation/publication-detail.html?id=544&

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Luna;
    I would be most grateful if you could share that article with me somehow. As you can see in my previous reply, my mother and my maternal Grandmother both died from Dementia with Lewy Bodies. I know that the gut has its own nervous system apart from the brain, unlike any other system of the body. I have never heard of Lewy Bodies being found in the gut as well as in the brain. This fascinates me, as there is also a bowel condition that runs (no pun intended) through that side of my family as well. The crazy thing is, migraines come from my father’s side of the family!

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    Wow, that’s a lot to absorb as someone whose migraines have gotten worse in middle age, has tremors in hands and legs, has restless leg syndrome, and a family history of Dementia with Lewy Bodies which has aspects of both Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. Both my mother and my grandmother both displayed more of the Parkinson’s aspects of the disease.
    I used to get auras as a teenager, and recently I began having visual symptoms fairly frequently. Since I’ve had an ongoing migraine for almost 3 years now, I can’t quite call it an aura, as it occurs concurrently with the pain.
    I know you said not to worry, but that’s kind of like saying “don’t look at the pink elephant in the middle of the room!”
    Seriously, I’m not freaking out, it’s impossible to worry about Parkinson’s now that Ebola’s here.

  • Sarah Hackley author
    5 years ago

    Jules,

    I hear you. I wrote this article because I’m a female migraineur who experiences extreme aura and has an extensive family history of Parkinson’s disease/symptoms (multiple immediate family members). I’m very interested in finding out more about this connection, as I hope it will lead to further insights into both conditions. For now, all we can really do is keep the connection in mind and watch for further developments/treatments.

  • Poll