Parkinson’s disease may be less likely to develop in people who take ibuprofen, a nonprescription painkiller, according to Harvard University research.
In one study, men and women who used three or more tablets of ibuprofen each week were about 38 percent less likely to develop Parkinson’s, a brain disorder that can cause trembling and stiffness, than patients who didn’t take the drug, researchers said today in the journal Neurology.
The medicine was associated with 27 percent less risk of getting the disease when earlier studies were also accounted for, the scientists said. As many as 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s, and each year about 60,000 new cases are diagnosed, mostly in people ages 50 or older, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, based in New York.
“Ibuprofen could be a potential neuroprotective agent against Parkinson’s disease,” said Xiang Gao, the lead author of the study, in a telephone interview on Feb. 25.
More studies are needed before doctors should recommend taking ibuprofen to ward off the illness, said Gao, a Boston-based scientist at Harvard School of Public Health and at the Channing Laboratory, a unit of Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The two schools are part of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard University.
The Harvard study is one of the largest to examine possible benefits of ibuprofen on Parkinson’s, according to the St. Paul, Minnesota-based American Academy of Neurology, publisher of the journal. The research was sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. Parkinson’s is a brain disorder marked by tremors and difficulty walking.
The scientists analyzed data from almost 99,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study and more than 37,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. After 6 years, 291 patients were diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
The researchers determined through questionnaires what pain medicines people used. About 16 percent took ibuprofen, Gao said. The medicine, a generic, is also sold as Advil by New York-based Pfizer Inc. and Motrin by New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson.
The researchers combined the results with those of six previously published studies to show whether ibuprofen protects against Parkinson’s disease.
Gao said it is unclear how ibuprofen might work in the body to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s. The medicine may lower inflammation in the brain, which can contribute to the illness, he said.
Other painkillers, including aspirin and acetaminophen, weren’t associated with lower risk of getting Parkinson’s, according to the study.
There may be explanations for the findings other than attributing a protective effect to ibruprofen, according to the report. Possibly, patients were taking ibuprofen for conditions that themselves lower Parkinson’s risk. Also, people at higher risk of the disease may “have a more stoic personality” and be less likely to take painkillers in the first place, the researchers wrote.
The Harvard researchers didn’t prove ibuprofen contributed to the lower risk of Parkinson’s disease seen in the study, said James Bower, an associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“I haven’t discounted that it’s possibly protective, but there’s also other explanations,” Bower, who coauthored an editorial published along with the study, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 25. “This study is exciting because it shows a pretty convincing association.”
A clinical trial for ibuprofen in Parkinson’s patients may be warranted to follow up on the epidemiological findings, Bower said. Doctors in the meantime shouldn’t tell Parkinson’s patients to start taking the medicine, he said.