A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina, led by Dr. Xuemei Huang, has found what appears to be a link between low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels and Parkinson's Disease.
Cholesterol is the fatty-like substance that builds up along the walls of your arteries. LDL, also known as “bad cholesterol,” is the main source of that cholesterol buildup.
In a study of 124 participants, the researchers found that patients with low levels of LDL cholesterol were more than three and a half times as likely to develop Parkinson's Disease as patients with higher LDL levels. Their conclusion opened up the question as to whether or not “statins,” a group of LDL cholesterol lowering drugs, may also be a risk factor for the disease.
Parkinson’s Disease is a chronic neurological condition that affects a small area of cells in the mid brain known as the substantia nigra. It is named for Dr. James Parkinson, a London doctor who first described the condition in 1817. The progress of the disease is slow because the cells of the substantia nigra degenerate over time. As they degenerate, they reduce their production of a chemical known as "dopamine."
Dopamine is one of a number of chemicals called "neurotransmitters" that transmit or send messages from one nerve cell to another in the nervous system. As fewer and fewer messages are sent, the patient begins to exhibit more of the physical symptoms associated with the disease, such as trembling of the arms, jaw, legs, and face; stiffness or rigidity of the limbs and trunk; slowness of movement; and poor balance and coordination.
What prompted the University of North Carolina researchers to study the link between LDL cholesterol levels and Parkinson’s?
In a University press release dated Dec. 18, 2006, Dr Huang noted, “People with Parkinson's disease have a lower occurrence of heart attack and stroke than people who do not have the disease, Parkinson's patients are also more likely to carry the gene APOE-2, which is linked with lower LDL cholesterol."
The release goes on to state that it has been known for over a decade, that smoking, which increases a person's chance of getting cardiovascular disease, is also associated with a lower risk of Parkinson's disease. It was these findings that led Dr. Huang to examine whether higher LDL cholesterol might be associated with a lower occurrence for Parkinson's disease.
In the release, Dr. Huang was emphatic that people should neither change their eating habits, nor their use of statins because of the results. The study was based on relatively small numbers of cases and controls, and the results are too preliminary. The researchers plan to do a full prospective study with 16,000 participants to examine whether lower cholesterol levels predates the onset of Parkinson's, and whether or not taking cholesterol-lowering drugs somehow protects against Parkinson's.
Foxnews.com Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.
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Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.