Nightmares are a good predictor of future dementia – new study

We spend a third of our life sleeping. And a quarter of our sleep time is spent dreaming. So for the average person alive in 2022, with a life expectancy of around 73 years, that’s a little over six dream years.

Yet, given the central role dreams play in our lives, we still know so little about why we dream, how the brain creates dreams, and most importantly, what our dreams mean to us. our health, especially our brain health. .

My latest study, published in the Lancet journal eClinicalMedicine, shows that our dreams can reveal a surprising amount of information about our brain health. Specifically, it shows that having frequent bad dreams and nightmares (bad dreams that wake you up) in middle or old age may be linked to an increased risk of developing dementia.

In the study, I analyzed data from three major US studies on health and aging. These included more than 600 people aged 35 to 64 and 2,600 people aged 79 and over.

All participants were dementia-free at the start of the study and were followed for an average of nine years for the middle-aged group and five years for the older participants.

At the start of the study (2002-2012), participants completed a series of questionnaires, including one that asked how often they had bad dreams and nightmares.

I analyzed the data to find out whether participants with a higher frequency of nightmares at the start of the study were more likely to experience cognitive decline (a rapid decline in memory and thinking skills over time) and to be diagnosed with dementia.

Weekly nightmares

I found that middle-aged participants who had nightmares every week were four times more likely to experience cognitive decline (a precursor to dementia) over the next decade, while older participants were twice more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Interestingly, the link between nightmares and future dementia was much stronger for men than for women. For example, older men who had nightmares every week were five times more likely to develop dementia than older men reporting no bad dreams. In women, however, the increased risk was only 41%. I found a very similar pattern in the middle age group.

The link between nightmares and later dementia was much stronger in men than in women.
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Taken together, these results suggest that frequent nightmares may be one of the earliest signs of dementia, which may precede the development of memory and thinking problems by years or even decades, particularly in men.

Alternatively, it is also possible that regular bad dreams and nightmares can even be a cause of dementia.

Given the nature of this study, it is not possible to determine with certainty which of these theories is correct (although I suspect it is the first). However, whichever theory turns out to be true, the main implication of the study remains the same, which is that having bad dreams and nightmares on a regular basis in middle age and advanced may be linked to an increased risk of developing dementia later in life. .

The good news is that recurring nightmares can be treated. And first-line medical treatment for nightmares has already been shown to decrease the buildup of abnormal proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. There have also been case reports showing improvements in memory and thinking skills after treating nightmares.

These findings suggest that treating nightmares may help slow cognitive decline and prevent dementia from developing in some people. This will be an important avenue to explore in future research.

The next steps in my research will be to determine if nightmares in young people could also be linked to an increased risk of dementia. This could help determine if nightmares cause dementia or are just an early sign in some people. I also plan to investigate whether other characteristics of dreams, such as how often we remember our dreams and their vividness, might also help determine the likelihood of people developing dementia in the future.

This research could not only help shed light on the relationship between dementia and dreaming, and provide new opportunities for earlier diagnoses – and possibly earlier interventions – but it could also shed new light on the nature and the function of the mysterious phenomenon which we call the dream. .

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