Coffee, tobacco, aspirin offset Parkinson’s disease’s genetic risk

Presence of all three lifestyle habits reduced early disease onset risk by 55%

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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People with a genetic predisposition to Parkinson’s disease are more likely to have early-onset symptoms, but lifestyle factors such as coffee consumption and tobacco and aspirin use may exert a more significant impact on that risk than common genetic risks, research findings suggest.

While still exploratory, “our findings underline the importance of investigating both genetic disposition and external influences such as environmental and lifestyle factors to unravel the likelihood of disease manifestation,” the researchers wrote in “The combined effect of lifestyle factors and polygenic scores on age at onset in Parkinson’s disease,” which was published in Scientific Reports.

Both genetic influences and environmental factors have been linked to Parkinson’s disease risk. Certain environmental factors, like exposure to pesticides and head trauma, are associated with increased risk, but others, such as coffee consumption and regular physical activity, may offer a protective effect and possibly delay the onset and progression of symptoms.

Scientists know risk factors don’t each act on their own, but how their interaction influences the age of Parkinson’s onset is unknown, leading researchers to analyze data from 4,367 people with idiopathic Parkinson’s, meaning without a known cause, and 159 people with Parkinson’s associated with GBA1 mutations, a common genetic cause of the disease, to see how genetics and certain lifestyle habits interact to affect the age at which Parkinson’s symptoms first appear. The analysis also included 3,090 healthy people of European ancestry as controls.

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Effect of coffee, tobacco, aspirin on Parkinson’s genetic risk

In Parkinson’s, a high polygenic score — a measure of how likely someone is to develop disease based on their genetic makeup alone — was linked to a younger age at disease onset. For patients with the highest polygenic scores, onset occurred a median two years earlier than for those with the lowest polygenic scores (61 vs. 63).

When the researchers looked at lifestyle habits, they found that drinking coffee or smoking tobacco — the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. — reduced the risk of early disease onset by up to 25%. For aspirin, a medication used to relieve pain and fever, the reduction was by 34%.

“Aspirin might play an important protective part in the inflammatory processes that could lead to neurodegeneration,” the researchers wrote. In Parkinson’s, the degeneration of nerve cells responsible for producing dopamine — a critical neurotransmitter for motor control — leads to the motor symptoms associated with the condition.

While “aspirin seems to have a larger effect on [age at onset] than coffee or tobacco,” the presence of all three lifestyle habits reduced the risk of early disease onset by 55%. For patients with none of these lifestyle habits, onset occurred a median of nine years earlier than for those with all three (57 vs. 66).

In the subgroup of patients who had no protective lifestyle habits, those with a high polygenic score were at 3.03 times higher risk of early-onset Parkinson’s than those with a low polygenic score. Patients who used all three lifestyle habits had no increased risk, regardless of polygenic score.

Drinking coffee and aspirin intake duration was linked to later disease onset in patients whose Parkinson’s was linked to GBA1 mutations. All three lifestyle habits reduced the risk of early disease onset by 65%, indicating GBA1 mutations didn’t significantly change their protective effects.

“Coffee, tobacco, aspirin, and [polygenic score] are independent predictors of [age at onset],” the researchers wrote, adding that lifestyle habits appear to have greater influence on age at onset than common genetic causes, with aspirin having the largest effect.

Data were retrieved from the Accelerating Medicine Partnership Parkinson’s Disease Knowledge Platform, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, and the Fox Insight database. The study was funded by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.