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Jun 8, 2022
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Nightmares in old age may be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease

Nightmares in old age may be an early sign of Parkinson's disease

Older people who start having bad dreams or nightmares may have the earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease, researchers from the University of Birmingham say. A new study published in the journal eClinicalMedicine found that a cohort of older men who had frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease as those who did not.

Previous research has shown that people with Parkinson’s disease experience nightmares and bad dreams more frequently than adults in the general population, but the use of nightmares as an indicator of Parkinson’s disease risk has not been previously considered.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Abidemi Otaikou, from the university’s Center for Human Brain Health, said: “Although early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease can be very helpful, there are very few risk indicators, and many of them require expensive hospital tests or are very common and non-specific, for example, diabetes.

“While we need to do further research in this area, revealing the significance of bad dreams and nightmares may indicate that people who experience changes in their dreams in old age for no apparent reason should seek medical attention.”

The team used data from a large US cohort study that included 12 years of data from 3,818 elderly men living on their own. At the start of the study, the men completed a series of questionnaires, one of which included a question about sleep quality. Participants who reported bad dreams at least once a week were followed up at the end of the study to see if they were more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

During the observation period, 91 cases of Parkinson’s disease were diagnosed. The researchers found that participants who had frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to develop the disease as those who did not. Most diagnoses were made in the first five years of the study. Participants with frequent bad dreams during this period were more than three times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.

The results suggest that older people who are once diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are likely to start having bad dreams and nightmares years before the onset of the characteristic signs of Parkinson’s disease, including tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement.

The study also shows that our dreams can reveal important information about the structure and function of our brain and could be an important subject for neuroscience research.

The researchers plan to use electroencephalography (EEG) to study the biological causes of altered dreams. They will also try to replicate the findings in larger and more diverse cohorts and explore possible links between dreams and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

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