Scientists have discovered that a commonly prescribed dementia drug could hold the key to preventing debilitating falls for people with Parkinson's and improving their quality of life.
The research showed that people with Parkinson's who were given the oral drug rivastigmine were 45% less likely to fall and were considerably steadier when walking, compared to those that took a pill with no active treatment.
The results were published today in The Lancet Neurology. The study was part-funded by Parkinson's UK.
Falls in people with Parkinson's
Parkinson's affects 127,000* people in the UK and approximately 7 million worldwide.
70% of people with Parkinson's will fall at least once per year, with over a third experiencing falls repeatedly, resulting in fractures, broken bones and hospital admissions.
Parkinson's UK Research Fellow Dr Emily Henderson and her team at the University of Bristol studied 130 people with Parkinson's who had fallen in the past year.
Half the group was given rivastigmine capsules and the other half was given a placebo for an 8-month period.
Reducing falls by helping concentration
Dr Emily Henderson explains:
"With the degeneration of dopamine producing nerve cells, people with Parkinson's often have issues with unsteadiness when walking.
"As part of the condition, they also have lower levels of the chemical acetylcholine, which helps us to concentrate. This makes it extremely difficult to balance and walk at the same time.
"We already know that rivastigmine works to treat dementia by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, however our study shows for the first time that it can also improve walking, regularity of step, speed, and balance.
"This is a real breakthrough in reducing the risk of falls for people with Parkinson's."
A step towards better treatments
Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson's UK, said:
"People affected by Parkinson's, their carers, and health and social care professionals have said that preventing falls and improving balance is the biggest unmet need for people living with the condition, outside of finding a cure.
"This study shows that there may be drugs already available, being used for other purposes, that can be tested to help treat Parkinson's.
"These results take us a step closer to improving the quality of life and finding better treatments for people with Parkinson's. But we still need more information before we recommend that people with Parkinson's are prescribed rivastigmine for falls."
*This article mentions statistics which have since been updated. 2018 data shows that the number of people diagnosed with Parkinson's in the UK is around 145,000.