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Recurrent Nightmares? You May Be at Higher Risk for Dementia, Study Finds

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Sleeping  - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.09.2022
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There are few ways to predict who will develop dementia as they age, but researchers were recently shocked to find that experiencing frequent bad dreams during middle age could point to future cognitive decline and the development of dementia. If confirmed, the findings may lead to new ways of screening for dementia and slowing cognitive decline.
Though most people experience bad dreams every once in a while, a new study has found that individuals between the ages of 35 and 64 who experience bad dreams on a frequent basis are four times more likely to experience cognitive decline, while those older than 64 were twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia.
The study, which builds on prior research on people with Parkinson’s disease, followed 605 middle-aged Americans and 2,600 adults aged 79 or older over a period of 10 years.
“There are very few risk indicators for dementia that can be identified as early as middle age. 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 the disease,” explained Dr. Abidemi Otaiku, a researcher at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health.
There’s a correlation between bad dreams and poor sleep quality, but Otaiku’s working theory is rooted instead in neurodegeneration (the progressive atrophy and loss of neuron function) within the brain’s right frontal lobe, which makes it harder for people to regulate their emotions while dreaming.
According to the study, statistical software was used to find out if participants experiencing frequent nightmares were more likely to experience cognitive decline, which was defined as “having an annual rate of decline in global cognitive function” measured using five different cognitive tests.
“We know that neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease often start many years before somebody is diagnosed,” Otaiku said. “In some individuals who already have [an] underlying disease, bad dreams and nightmares might be one of the earliest signs.”
Otaiku stressed that not everyone who regularly experiences nightmares is likely to develop dementia, but that with more research, bad dreams could eventually be used to identify high-risk individuals:
“If we can identify who’s at high risk for getting dementia several years or even decades earlier, we may be able to slow down the onset, or maybe even prevent it altogether.”
The findings were published in the journal eClinicalMedicine.
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