A drug commonly prescribed to treat symptoms of dementia could help prevent falls for people with Parkinson’s disease, according to new research published in The Lancet Neurology.

People with Parkinson’s who were given the oral drug rivastigmine (Exelon, Novartis) were 45% less likely to fall and were considerably steadier when walking, compared with those on the placebo, researchers from the University of Bristol, U.K., found.

Parkinson’s affects about 7 million worldwide, and 70% of them will fall at least once a year, with more than one-third experiencing falls repeatedly, resulting in fractures, broken bones and hospital admissions. Those who have the disease experience unsteadiness because of the degeneration of dopamine-producing nerve calls and lower levels of acetylcholine in their bodies, said Emily Henderson, MRCP, MBChB, a research fellow at the university and at Parkinson’s UK, which funded the research.

Rivastigmine is prescribed to aid those with dementia in their ability to think and remember or to slow the loss of those abilities.

“We already know that rivastigmine works to treat dementia by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine,” said Henderson, principal researcher on the study. “However, our study shows for the first time that it can also improve regularity of walking, speed and balance. This is a real breakthrough in reducing the risk of falls for people with Parkinson’s.”

The findings are based on a study of 130 people with Parkinson’s disease who had fallen within the past year. Half of them were given rivastigmine capsules, and the other half of them received a placebo for eight months.

“This trial shows that there may be drugs already available, being used for other purposes, that can be tested to help treat Parkinson’s,” said Arthur Roach, Ph.D., director of research at Parkinson’s UK. “This takes us a step closer to improving the quality of life and finding better treatments for people with Parkinson’s.”

Emily Henderson, MRCP, MBChB, discusses the research: