Parkinson’s disease affects the nervous system. The disease damages or kills nerves in the brain, which results in muscle stiffness, tremors, and other symptoms. Females with Parkinson’s disease may report different symptoms and receive a lower quality of care compared with males.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms, “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, Parkinson’s disease affects approximately 1 million people in the United States.

Females are less likely to develop the condition compared to males, and they may experience different symptoms.

Females report:

  • more side effects to medications
  • different symptoms
  • reduced quality of care
  • symptom fluctuation throughout the day

This article reviews how Parkinson’s disease affects females.

A person helping a woman with Parkinson's disease button up a green coat.Share on Pinterest
Shestock/Getty Images

Parkinson’s disease is less common in females. Males are 1.5 times more likely to develop the condition.

Researchers do not know exactly why Parkinson’s disease is less prevalent in females, but the Parkinson’s Foundation notes that may be due to:

  • Environmental factors: Females may be less likely to experience exposure to heavy metals and pesticides or sustain head injuries.
  • Estrogen levels: Estrogen may help protect the brain against developing Parkinson’s disease.

The National Institute on Aging notes that Parkinson’s disease typically develops in people over 60 years, regardless of sex.

However, about 5–10% of all cases develop before a person reaches the age of 50.

When this occurs, healthcare professionals refer to this as early-onset Parkinson’s disease. People who develop early-onset Parkinson’s disease often inherit the condition.

The following are signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Early symptoms

Early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are generally more subtle and develop gradually. Early symptoms include:

  • small handwriting
  • loss of smell
  • tremor
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty moving or walking
  • constipation
  • a soft voice
  • stooping over

According to a 2020 study, females often initially present with tremors, which the researchers associated with a slower degeneration of muscles.

By contrast, males typically develop changes in posture or balance as early symptoms.

Learn about 13 early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Symptoms

Regardless of sex, symptoms of Parkinson’s disease vary greatly between individuals.

Four main symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • tremor that affects the head, arms, jaw, and hands
  • stiffness that affects the limbs and trunk
  • slow movement
  • impaired coordination and balance

Other symptoms include:

  • depression
  • emotional changes
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty chewing
  • difficulty speaking
  • constipation
  • sleep issues
  • urinary issues, such as urinary incontinence

According to a 2020 study, symptoms may appear later in females, and they have a higher chance of developing a more benign type of Parkinson’s disease. They may experience less severe symptoms related to movement deterioration.

Although research is inconclusive, females typically report some symptoms, such as depression, more often than males.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine die or become damaged. They primarily cause symptoms associated with movement.

In addition, people often lose nerve endings that produce norepinephrine, which causes nonphysical symptoms, such as fatigue.

While Parkinson’s disease does run in some families, experts generally believe the majority of cases occur due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors rather than a single inherited trait.

Treatment options for Parkinson’s disease are the same, regardless of gender.

Treatment typically includes:

  • Medications: The first-line medication to treat Parkinson’s disease is levodopa.
  • Surgery: This aims to reduce tremors and rigidity. It can include:
    • lesion surgery, which targets deep parts of the brain that control movement.
    • deep brain stimulation (DBS), where a surgeon places a small electrode on parts of the brain that control movement.

However, the Parkinson’s Foundation suggests that females may not respond as well to treatment compared to males. Even small changes in the medications or medication schedules can lead to significant changes in the symptoms that females experience.

Females have a higher chance of developing involuntary muscle movement as a side effect of levodopa medication. This may be due to the following factors:

  • a lower body weight
  • dosage
  • age of Parkinson’s disease onset

The Foundation also notes that healthcare professionals report difficulties in fine-tuning the medications for females.

Additionally, despite DBS being a valid surgical treatment option for anyone with Parkinson’s disease, females are less likely to receive this treatment.

However, other factors can also affect females’ overall care, including:

  • attending appointments alone
  • living in a nursing facility
  • using home healthcare

The role of estrogen

Estrogen may play a protective role against the development of Parkinson’s disease.

According to a 2020 study, females who experienced longer fertility and later menopause had a decreased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. The exact reason for this is unknown.

A 2019 study suggests that estrogen helps to:

As a person ages, they should attend preventive screenings and checkups. These can help them identify possible symptoms or signs of Parkinson’s disease or other age-related disorders.

A person should talk with a doctor if they notice signs or symptoms that could indicate Parkinson’s disease.

People undergoing treatment for Parkinson’s disease should speak with a doctor to regularly assess how their treatment is affecting them.

Support is available for people living with Parkinson’s disease in many areas around the U.S.

The Parkinson’s Foundation provides a way to search for local chapters of their organization that offer services, such as support groups in a person’s area. A person can search here for local chapters.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research offers advice on creating a local support group here.

The Foundation also suggests a person consider online groups, such as:

Although research is inconclusive, the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in females may differ. Symptoms may appear later on, and females may be more likely to experience depression compared with males.

Parkinson’s disease also affects males more than females. Although the reason for this is unknown, estrogen may play a role in reducing the occurrence of Parkinson’s disease and help to delay its onset.

The treatment for Parkinson’s disease in females is the same for males. However, they may respond differently to the medication and receive lower levels of care.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for Parkinson’s disease, visit our dedicated hub.