Nightmares could be early warning signs of Parkinson’s disease

The research has found that older men experiencing frequent bad dreams are twice as likely to be later diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Stock photo of a man having a nightmare.mphillips007/iStock

As if having nightmares was not bad enough, a recent study is revealing that the bad dreams may be an early sign of Parkinson's, according to a press release published on Tuesday by the University of Birmingham. 

Older men who experienced nightmares are twice as likely to have Parkinson's 

The research found that older men experiencing frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to be later diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It has already been established that people with Parkinson’s disease experience nightmares and bad dreams more frequently than adults in the general population, but this new study is the first to use nightmares as a risk indicator for the disease.

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.

“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 researchers evaluated 3818 older men living independently over 12 years. The participants were asked to complete a range of questionnaires, one of which included a question about sleep quality.

Those indicating they had bad dreams at least once per week were then followed up at the end of the study to see whether they were more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

From that pool of subjects, 91 cases of Parkinson’s were observed. The researchers then concluded that participants experiencing frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to develop the disease compared to those who did not.

The first five years of the study

Furthermore, the researchers found that those who reported having bad dreams in the first five years of the study were more than three times as likely to go on to develop Parkinson’s.

The study indicated that bad dreams and nightmares could be a key precursor for developing the characteristic features of Parkinson’s, including tremors, stiffness, and slowness of movement. This means that those who frequently have bad sleep could seek help for Parkinson's earlier. 

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The researchers now plan to use electroencephalography (EEG) to look at the biological reasons behind bad dreams and nightmares and possible means of avoiding them. They will also seek to replicate their findings in larger and more diverse groups of subjects.

Finally, they will further investigate possible links between dreams and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If nightmares can be linked to even more disorders, it may make the case for the importance of finding a treatment that helps avoid them. 

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is associated with alterations to the phenomenology of dreaming - including an increased frequency of distressing dreams. Whether distressing dreams might precede the development of PD is unknown. This study investigated the association between frequent distressing dreams and the risk of incident PD.

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