Posted on Sep 22, 2022, 5 p.m.
At some point in their lives, just about everyone has experienced an occasional nightmare. New research from the University of Birmingham published in the LANCET journal EClinicalMedicine suggests that experiencing bad dreams frequently during middle age may be a sign of the possible onset of future cognitive decline and dementia years or decades later.
Dr. Abidemi Otaiku, of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, said, “We’ve demonstrated for the first time that distressing dreams, or nightmares, can be linked to dementia risk and cognitive decline among healthy adults in the general population.” Adding, “This is important because there are very few risk indicators for dementia that can be identified as early as middle age. While more work needs to be done to confirm these links, we believe bad dreams could be a useful way to identify individuals at high risk of developing dementia and put in place strategies to slow down the onset of disease.”
The study included over 600 men and women between the ages of 35-64 and another 2,600 aged 79 or older. None of the participants had dementia at the beginning of the study. Data collection happened between 2002-2012 with the younger group being tracked for an average of nine years and the older group being tracked for 5 years. A series of questionnaires featuring questions specifically asking about bad dream frequency was filled out by the participants. Data were then analyzed using statistical software in an attempt to determine if those experiencing more nightmares were also more like to develop cognitive decline and dementia.
According to the researchers, middle-aged people dealing with nightmares on a weekly basis are 4 times more likely to experience cognitive decline over the following decade, and older adults were also twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia. These connections were found to be more stronger among men than in women. Older men experiencing bad dreams every week were found to be 5 times more at risk of dementia than those with no bad dreams, and older women experiencing bad dreams had a 41% increased risk.
The team is already planning to conduct further investigations using EEG and MRI technology to look at the biological basis of bad dreams among those diagnosed with dementia and healthy people. They plan to investigate what impacts nightmares have on younger people and adolescents and if specific dream characteristics such as vividness and recollections of dreams could help to identify the possibility of cognitive decline and dementia risk.
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