Open Access Research article

Harm avoidance is associated with progression of parkinsonism in community-dwelling older adults: a prospective cohort study

Aron S Buchman12*, Lei Yu1, Robert S Wilson13, Joshua M Shulman45, Patricia A Boyle13 and David A Bennett12

Author Affiliations

1 Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA

2 Department of Neurological Sciences, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA

3 Department of Behavioral Science, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA

4 Departments of Neurology and Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA

5 Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute, Houston, TX, USA

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BMC Geriatrics 2014, 14:54  doi:10.1186/1471-2318-14-54

Published: 23 April 2014



We tested the hypothesis that harm avoidance, a trait associated with behavioral inhibition, is associated with the rate of change in parkinsonism in older adults.


At baseline harm avoidance was assessed with a standard self-report instrument in 969 older people without dementia participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a longitudinal community-based cohort study. Parkinsonism was assessed annually with a modified version of the motor section of the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (mUPDRS).


Average follow-up was 5 years. A linear mixed-effects model controlling for age, sex and education showed that for an average participant (female, 80 years old at baseline, with 14 years of education and a harm avoidance score of 10), the overall severity of parkinsonism increased by about 0.05 unit/ year (Estimate, 0.054, S.E., 0.007, p <0.001) and that the level of harm avoidance was associated with the progression of parkinsonism (Estimate, 0.004, S.E., 0.001, p <0.001). Thus, for an average participant, every 6 point (~1 SD) increase in harm avoidance score at baseline, the rate of progression of parkinsonism increased about 50% compared to an individual with an average harm avoidance score. This amount of change in parkinsonism over the course of the study was associated with about a 5% increased risk of death. The association between harm avoidance and progression of parkinsonism persisted when controlling for cognitive function, depressive symptoms, loneliness, neuroticism, late-life cognitive, social and physical activities and chronic health conditions.


A higher level of the harm avoidance trait is associated with a more rapid progression of parkinsonism in older adults.

Late-life motor impairment; Aging; Parkinsonism; Harm avoidance