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A Smoke and a Cup of Joe Linked to Warding Off Parkinson's

Caffeine and nicotine don't get a lot of good press these days, for understandable reasons.

But a new study found that people from families prone to Parkinson's who drink coffee and smoke cigarettes are less likely to develop the disease.

Researchers say the findings suggest environmental factors could play as large a role as genetics in the development of Parkinson's, a degenerative neurological disease that affects more than 1 million Americans.

"What this study tells us is there is something about cigarette smoking and consuming caffeine that alters the biology underpinning Parkinson's disease," said researcher William Scott, a professor of medicine at the Institute of Human Genomics at the University of Miami, who led the study.

One possible explanation is dopamine, a message-carrying chemical in the brain that falls to low levels in Parkinson's patients, Scott said. Research has shown that both nicotine and caffeine increase the level of dopamine production in the brain -- though another researcher involved in the study cautioned that doesn't establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

"It's safe to say that the folks who tend to have these behaviors as a group are less likely to develop Parkinson's, but that doesn't mean they won't get it," said Burton Scott, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Duke University and who is unrelated to William Scott.

The study, however, did find the risk reduction was statistically significant -- about 40 percent -- in people who had smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their lifetime or drank at least two or more cups of coffee a day.

"They (smoking and caffeine) are just pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and we are putting it together, but don't have all the pieces yet so we don't have it all figured out," William Scott said.

While most cases of Parkinson's are not inherited -- only about 20 percent occur in families with a history of the disease -- researchers have found several genes that cause the disease in a small number of families. Still, environmental associations need to be considered also, he said.

The association between nicotine, caffeine and Parkinson's disease was already known from prior studies, said Robin Elliott, executive director of the New York-based Parkinson's Disease Foundation. But he said the new study -- which was published today in the Archives of Neurology -- is the first to look at the association within families.

The study was based on the self-reported responses to questions about exposure to caffeine and smoking by 356 Parkinson's patients and 317 of their family members who don't have the disease.

Those with Parkinson's were half as likely to report ever smoking and a third as likely to report current smoking compared with relatives without the disease. Similarly, Parkinson's patients were also less likely to be heavy.

"Families tend to grow up together," Elliott said. "This was a good study by a very reputable team."

But before anyone lights up or increases their coffee intake, the researchers issued a stern warning.

"I would not recommend people alter their behaviors based on this study," William Scott said. "With smoking especially, whatever benefit might be provided is swamped by all the negatives.

"But I'd also think that with drinking my morning cup of coffee this morning that, hey, there's at least one good thing that comes from this."

Not everyone is convinced of the association between coffee-drinking, smoking and Parkinson's.

"I wouldn't believe the outcome," said H. William Lear, 69, of Union, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Parkinson's Disease Association, who has been living with the disease for 25 years.

Lear, the only person in his family with Parkinson's, said he never smoked cigarettes, although he did smoke a pipe many years ago. As for coffee, he has downed one or two cups a day for as long as he can remember.

"I think it's ridiculous," he said of the study's findings.

Source Date: Apr 10 2007
Source Publication: Star-Ledger Staff
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