According to experts at the University of Birmingham, older adults who begin to have nightmares or disturbing dreams could be displaying the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
In a cohort of older males, recent research that was published in the journal eClinicalMedicine found that those who often had nightmares were twice as likely to eventually receive a Parkinson’s diagnosis as those who did not.
Although prior research has revealed that people with Parkinson’s disease have more nightmares and disturbing dreams than adults in the general population, the possibility of utilizing nightmares as a risk factor for Parkinson’s has not been explored.
Lead author, Dr. Abidemi Otaiku, of the University’s Centre for Human Brain Health, said: “Although it can be really beneficial to diagnose Parkinson’s disease early, there are very few risk indicators and many of these require expensive hospital tests or are very common and non-specific, such as diabetes.”
He continues, “While we need to carry out further research in this area, identifying the significance of bad dreams and nightmares could indicate that individuals who experience changes to their dreams in older age – without any obvious trigger – should seek medical advice.”
The team used data from a large cohort study from the USA, which contained data over a period of 12 years from 3818 older men living independently. At the beginning of the study, the men completed a range of questionnaires, one of which included a question about sleep quality.
At the conclusion of the trial, participants who had at least one terrible dream each week were followed up on to see if they were more likely to be given a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.
91 Parkinson’s patients were identified throughout the follow-up period. The people who had frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to have the condition as those who did not, the researchers discovered. The majority of diagnoses were made in the first five years of the research. Participants who had frequent nightmares throughout this time period were more than three times more likely to acquire Parkinson’s disease.
The results suggest that older adults who will one day be diagnosed with Parkinson’s are likely to begin experiencing bad dreams and nightmares a few years before developing the characteristic features of Parkinson’s, including tremors, stiffness, and slowness of movement.
The study also shows that our dreams can reveal important information about our brain structure and function and may prove to be an important target for neuroscience research.
The researchers plan to use electroencephalography (EEG) to look at the biological reasons for dream changes. They will also look at replicating the findings in larger and more diverse cohorts and explore possible links between dreams and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Reference: “Distressing dreams and risk of Parkinson’s disease: A population-based cohort study” by Dr. Abidemi I. Otaiku, 8 June 2022, eClinicalMedicine.