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Frequent Nightmares an Early Sign of Parkinson’s in Older Adults

Men who have bad dreams at least once a week could be at risk of developing this brain disorder

man struggling to sleep
EMS FORSTER PRODUCTIONS

If you’re an older man and having frequent bad dreams, you may want to alert your doctor, as it could be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease, according to new research from the University of Birmingham in the U.K.​

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The study, published in eClinicalMedicine, focused on older men who experienced frequent nightmares. The researchers found that they were twice as likely to later be diagnosed with Parkinson’s than men who did not have recurring bad dreams. ​

It’s no secret that people suffering from Parkinson’s experience nightmares more frequently than the general public, but little research has been done on using nightmares as a risk factor for a brain disorder that causes unintended and uncontrollable movements, including involuntary shaking, difficulty balancing, stiffness and tremors. ​

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Hard to diagnose

A big challenge with Parkinson’s disease is diagnosing it early, before the onset of symptoms. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), most people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s (the second-most-common neurodegenerative disorder in the U.S.) at age 60 or older. As it stands, about 500,000 Americans are diagnosed with the condition, but with many individuals going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, the actual number of sufferers may be double that. By the time someone exhibits motor symptoms and receives a diagnosis, substantial and widespread loss of brain cells and functions of the brain and autonomic nervous system have already occurred.​

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​​ “Although it can be really beneficial to diagnose Parkinson’s disease early, there are very few risk indicators,” lead author Abidemi Otaiku of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health said in a press release. “Many of these [indicators] require expensive hospital tests or are very common and nonspecific, such as diabetes.”​

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To study the connection between bad dreams and Parkinson’s, the researchers used data from a large cohort study in the U.S., which included 12 years’ worth of data on 3,818 older men living independently at home. At the beginning of the study, the participants were asked a series of questions, including one on their sleep quality. ​

Those who reported bad dreams at least once a week were studied again once the study ended to see if they were more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The researchers discovered that 91 participants with frequent nightmares were diagnosed during the follow-up period. The men who experienced repeated nightmares were twice as likely to develop the disease. The majority of the Parkinson’s diagnoses occurred in the first five years of the study. Participants with frequent bad dreams during that period were over three times more likely to eventually develop the brain disorder. ​

The researchers said the results of the study suggest that older adults who are eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s will likely experience nightmares a few years before the onset of symptoms. “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,” Otaiku said.

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