Waking up in the middle of the night following a bad dream is not a rare occurrence and typically doesn’t raise alarm from a medical standpoint. While nearly 40 percent of adults experience at least one bad dream per month, the possible clinical significance of recurring bad dreams is a topic without widespread awareness.

That’s beginning to change.

Of initial concern is a link between disturbing dreams and clinical outcomes among individuals with Parkinson’s disease. In a series of studies, higher frequency of troublesome sleep events predicted faster rates of cognitive decline and accelerated development of dementia in individuals living with Parkinson’s disease.

These clues are the basis for the question whether the same outcomes can be expected in individuals without Parkinson’s disease, which is a disorder caused by nerve cell damage in the brain.

Recent investigations into this question produced some insights. Researchers working with community-dwelling adults observed an increase to the number of bad dreams they had as they got older. The study also found associations between bad dreams and poor cognitive decline from a cross-sectional data standpoint. The bigger question yet to be answered is whether there’s a direct association between the two.

Scientists wanted to test the hypothesis that more bad dreams in middle-aged adults without cognitive impairment is associated with the faster development of cognitive decline and disease later in life. The findings revealed a positive connection between the two. Researchers demonstrated a statistical and linear significance in the data linking bad dreams and the accelerated development of cognitive decline.

The study zeroed in on individuals who reported bad dreams every week. Unfortunately, they were four times more likely to experience cognitive decline compared to adults who didn’t toss and turn during a terrible dream. The risk for developing cognitive impairment was higher among middle-aged men. Other population-based studies, however, indicate repeatedly that younger women are more likely to experience frequent nightmares when compared to their counterparts.

For the methodology, researchers evaluated more than 600 healthy adults around the age of 50. Over the span of no more than 13 years, the data explored the participants’ dream patterns and cognitive decline as uncovered through testing and monitoring. Another group of about 2,600 also took part for additional data on all-cause dementia.

The participants in the study self-reported their bad dreams using questionnaire assessments that inquired about their sleep quality and disturbances over a long period of time.

The frequency of disturbing dreams was measured across the various groups at baseline perspectives using multivariable analysis, revealing a link between something that people don’t give much thought to – an occasional bad dream – and degenerative disease, for which there’s no cure. While there’s still a lot the medical community needs to learn about, the findings could further the broader understanding about possible risk factors.

As we explore and uncover new information about the various links to dementia symptoms, then the hope is people will be empowered to take a more active role in preventative strategies and lead healthier lives. In the meantime, we should all strive to become more Dementia Aware in order to properly manage dementia symptoms.

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