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New Studies Connect Nightmares with Cognitive Decline

— October 13, 2022

Distressing dreams have been linked with dementia.

New research was found that may prove useful in early screenings for dementia. A study was conducted on a group of 600 plus middle-aged adults and a larger group of 2,600 elderly adults. Findings show that the recurrence of nightmares was directly linked to a higher risk of dementia. Middle-aged adults that experienced nightmares on a weekly basis were 4 times as likely to experience onset dementia. While the older group’s risk was 2 times as likely. However, both groups showed elevated risk for cognitive decline in men. Throughout the duration of the study, this outcome remained the same. In their 13-year test, 90 middle-aged adults met the standards for cognitive decline. While 235 older adults were clinically diagnosed with dementia during the 7-year testing period.

Each group was asked the same question: “During the past month, how often have you had trouble sleeping because you have had bad dreams?”

New Studies Connect Nightmares with Cognitive Decline
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Interestingly enough, in the middle-aged group women were found to have more nightmares. But from ages 65 and up the gap in nightmares closed between males and females. The frequency of nightmares in middle-aged men was 4-1% but later rose 8-5% in older men. While nightmares in middle-aged women ranged from 7-4% but later decreased to 5-7%. The increase of nightmares in older adults could be early signs of cognitive decline, and thus dementia. Researchers state, “We should expect a stronger association between distressing dream frequency and later cognitive outcomes amongst community-dwelling men, as compared with community-dwelling women (given that men are more likely than women to develop distressing dreams during middle and older adulthood).”

Also, during this study, depression was connected to dementia, as it had been discovered in many earlier studies. However, previously the only studies to connect nightmares and dementia were for patients that had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. In those studies’ it was proven that those with frequent nightmares are at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s. No other studies were performed until now for adults without Parkinson’s. A theory stands that depression and nightmares may be caused by the “neurodegeneration of the right frontal brain regions, that are required for down-regulating negative emotions across conscious states.” This means this theory and previous findings would also be aligned with the result of increased frequency of nightmares pointing to cognitive decline.

Tracking the frequency of these nightmares could lead doctors to find how close the patient is to a clinical diagnosis. A study for Alzheimer’s disease showed pharmaceutical treatments for nightmares such as prazosin prevent memory degeneration. With Alzheimer’s being the most common type of dementia, this raises the question: Could treating nightmares slow or prevent dementia altogether? As more studies are conducted, evidence currently shows that nightmares occur more as a person ages. This is directly connected to a declining cognitive function, increasing the possibility of a dementia diagnosis. The study suggests that doctors should screen for nightmares to help identify and possibly treat those with early stages of dementia, years or decades before a clinical diagnosis even takes place.


Distressing dreams, cognitive decline, and risk of dementia: A prospective study of three population-based cohorts

Nightmares in middle age could be a warning of future dementia: study 

Bad dreams in middle age could be a sign of dementia risk, study suggests

Nightmares are a good predictor of future dementia, says new study

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