Imagine being diagnosed with an incurable neurological disease, but afraid to reveal your identity because you might be denied care or enrollment in a clinical trial. Unfortunately, for many within the LGBTQ+ population living with Parkinson’s disease (PD), this is a common reality. Chi-Ying Roy Lin, MD, MPH, is an incoming neurologist at Baylor College of Medicine, a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence, who is advocating for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning plus other sexual identities (LGBTQ+) Parkinson’s community through research.
In his previous role as a Parkinson's Foundation Movement Disorders Fellow at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Lin noticed some life-altering issues his patients were grappling with. “Movement disorders is one of the least researched areas in the LGBTQ+ neuroscience field,” Dr. Lin said. The LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s community is so under-researched, there are currently no population estimates.
Dr. Lin’s published study titled, “Expanding Sexual and Gender Minority Research In Movement Disorders: More Than Awareness and Acceptance” identifies the most urgent LGBTQ+-related Parkinson’s issues.
Estrogen and Testosterone in Parkinson’s Research
Estrogen and testosterone can be given as medically necessary gender-affirming hormones to match transgender people’s gender identity. How does this relate to Parkinson’s? At this point, testosterone was not found to affect Parkinson’s symptoms. On the other hand, the influence of estrogen on Parkinson’s symptoms remains inconclusive. Some research has shown that estrogen can play a role in providing protective benefits, such as lessening certain symptoms. Researchers also found that women with PD could have more motor fluctuations than men, challenging the idea of estrogen’s “protective effect” In PD.
What does this mean for trans women with PD who take estrogen therapy? “It is possible that trans women with Parkinson’s who take estrogen may see better or worse motor symptoms, which requires future research to tell us,” Dr. Lin said. “This is particularly important, as counseling about the stopping or altering of gender-affirming hormone for a transgender person, if necessary, is drastically different from that for postmenopausal or contraception purpose, considering the medical necessity of gender-affirming hormone to maintain mental health and life quality.”
Worse Parkinson’s Care Access and Experience
“There is a disparity in care among those in the sexual and gender minorities,” Dr. Lin said. “I have had patients who are reluctant to reveal their identity because of fear they will get denied healthcare.”
“We need to create a safe environment in healthcare institutions to disclose sexual orientation and gender identity to better impact care and access to resources,” Dr. Lin wrote in his study. Sex is a biological identifier generally determined at birth (male or female), while gender is a person’s identity (man, woman, transgender, non-binary).
Unfortunately, there is no LGBTQ+ patient guidance for multidisciplinary teams or care facilities. This coupled with ongoing discrimination and stigma against LGBTQ+ patients in healthcare, many people do not feel comfortable telling their doctor they are in a same-sex marriage or they identify as transgender. Seniors within the LGBTQ+ are particularly vulnerable. “It is not uncommon to see higher rates of violence or verbal abuse in nursing homes aimed at LGBTQ+ residents,” Dr. Lin said.
Research, education, and advocacy can help address all these issues. The biggest obstacle right now for the LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s community is data. On a national level, most medical records list sex (female or male), but not gender (how a person identifies). “This continues to limit our research,” Dr. Lin said.
Knowing if a patient with Parkinson’s identifies as LGBTQ+ may help doctors provide customized treatments for movement and mood disorders. For instance, LGBTQ+ members typically experience higher rates of social isolation, so do people with Parkinson’s. If someone is LGBTQ+ and has Parkinson’s, they would be extremely prone to experience graver isolation issues that can lead to the worsening of non-movement PD symptoms, like depression or anxiety. To provide better evidence-based care, Dr. Lin would like to answer, “How does identity affect access to research and care?”
Helping the LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s Community
Policy-making and advocacy would change the course of treatment and care for the LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s community. “There are currently no guidelines at national or state level to help provide better care for the LGBTQ+ community,” Dr. Lin said. “There is a critical need for literature and best practices.”
Once created, guidelines would begin to address the disparity of care experienced by the LGBTQ+ community along with providing more tailored treatment options and help healthcare professionals follow best practices when treating LGBTQ+, Parkinson’s patients. For example, a nation-wide LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s guidelines can include affirming terminology for healthcare workers, an LGBTQ+-friendly and culturally competent provider list and proven ways to help the LGBTQ+ population feel more comfortable speaking to their care team.
“Do not be afraid to reveal your identity and community, said Dr. Lin when asked for his advice to the underrepresented LGBTQ+ Parkinson’s community. “I feel people in the medical community are relatively open-minded. If you are uncomfortable with your current specialist, reach out to other providers who may be able to give LGBTQ+ customized care. Telemedicine allows most people to find the right provider now. Also, try to be active in participating in clinical research and trials. Don’t be afraid to reveal who you are.”
Learn more about the Foundation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion at Parkinson.org/DEI.