New early signs of Parkinson's uncovered in most diverse UK study to date

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have reported results from the first UK study of the early signs of Parkinson's in a highly diverse population.

The new study, published in JAMA Neurology, provides further evidence of risk factors and early signs of Parkinson's, and suggests that hearing loss and epilepsy are early features of the condition.

What the researchers did

In this study, funded by Bart's Charity, electronic primary healthcare records from over a million people living in East London between 1990 and 2018 were used to explore early symptoms and risk factors for Parkinson's.

The team found that known symptoms associated with Parkinson's, including tremor and memory problems, can appear up to 10 and 5 years before diagnosis respectively.

They also uncovered 2 new early features of Parkinson's, epilepsy and hearing loss, and were able to replicate these findings using additional data from the UK Biobank.

Read the full study results on the JAMA Network website.

The need for more diversity in research

Whilst early signs of Parkinson's have been described previously, these studies have largely focused on affluent white populations. People from minority ethnic groups and those living in areas of high social deprivation are largely under-represented in Parkinson's research.

This means what we know about the condition and the treatments being developed does not represent the whole Parkinson's community.

East London has one of the highest proportions of Black, South Asian and mixed/other ethnic groups, which comprise around 45% of residents in the area, in comparison to 14% in the rest of the UK. It also has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, and 80% of patients included in the study were from low-income households.

Dr Alastair Noyce, reader in neurology and neuroepidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, commented:  

''People see their GPs with symptoms but often don’t get a diagnosis until 5 to 10 years after this. Tremor, for example, is one of the most recognisable symptoms of Parkinson's, but was seen 10 years before eventual diagnosis in our study. This is too long for patients to wait. 

''If we’re able to diagnose Parkinson's earlier, we have a real opportunity to intervene early and offer treatments that could improve quality of life for patients.

''This study confirms that many of the symptoms and early features of Parkinson's can occur long before a diagnosis. Through our ongoing PREDICT-PD research, we’re hoping to identify people at high risk of Parkinson's even before obvious symptoms appear, which means that we could do more than just improve quality of life for patients, and perhaps be in the position to slow down or cure Parkinson's in the future.''

Shafaq Hussain-Ali, 43, who was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's 3 years ago and is a member of Parkinson's UK Race Equality Steering Group, said: 

"Parkinson's affects everyone, regardless of race or social background, but research has often failed to represent the diversity of the community. 

''This research and the work that Parkinson's UK is leading helps address the many unknowns regarding how Parkinson’s affects people from under-represented groups. It means that life-changing new treatments can be developed that will benefit everyone with the condition. 

''I want to get the message out that young Asian people, like myself, can be affected by this condition, and that more people are likely to be affected by young onset Parkinson's in the future. Getting an early diagnosis can make such a difference to quality of life and Parkinson's progression. With appropriate management, you can carry on living well and have a productive life even with a diagnosis of young onset Parkinson's. I am still a practising dentist, who enjoys swimming, walking and kung fu. I also still love doing my crochet!''

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