Why are middle-aged nightmares linked to dementia?

Dementia rates are on the rise globally, as scientists work hard to improve our knowledge of the condition. Now, a new study has linked bad dreams in middle age to an increased risk of dementia later in life.

The study Published in The Lancet Journal eClinicalMedicine led by Dr Abidemi Otaiku of the University of Birmingham’s Center for Human Brain Health suggested that people who had frequent bad dreams in middle age (35-64) were more likely to have a lower streak. Data from more than 600 adults in the United States were examined, and none of the participants had dementia at the start of the study.

As Otaiko points out, more research is needed to get a clearer picture of what happens when it comes to nightmares in middle age and dementia. However, he says the findings are potentially “significant” because “there are very few risk indicators for dementia that can be identified as early as middle age” — and “bad dreams can be a useful way to identify individuals at risk for dementia.”

So, what else do we need to know at this point? We asked Dr. Otaiko to speak to us through…

What might these results mean?

“If we could identify people at risk of developing dementia several years or decades before memory and thinking problems start, clinicians would be in a better position to offer treatments that may delay or prevent dementia at all,” says Dr. Otaiko. Therefore, the finding that nightmares in middle-aged adults may be associated with an increased risk of dementia later in life, may help contribute to this strategy.

“The caveat is that such treatments are not yet available,” he adds. However, scientists are actively working on its development. In addition, we already know that there are a number of things we can do now to improve the health of our brain and thus reduce our risk of dementia, such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and keeping alcohol within recommended limits.

“And perhaps most interestingly, given that nightmares are treatable, these findings raise the possibility that treating nightmares may even help slow cognitive decline, delaying or preventing dementia.”

So, what’s going on – why can nightmares and dementia be linked?

“My theory is that – in some adults – recurrent nightmares or bad dreams are very early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, appearing several years or even decades before memory and thinking problems develop,” Otaiko says.

Are nightmares really an early sign of dementia? (Scientific / Pennsylvania)

We know that the same brain regions that regulate our emotions during wakefulness also regulate our feelings during dreaming. Therefore, the nightmares that appear before the onset of dementia could be caused by the neurodegeneration of the frontal brain regions that normally ‘regulate’ negative emotions via wakefulness and dreaming. This may lead to depression and anxiety during the day and nightmares and bad dreams during the night.”

Could there be other factors at play? For example, we often associate bad dreams with times of intense stress and anxiety

In this study, participants were asked a range of questions about their physical health and psychological well-being, including how stressed they were, as well as levels of anxiety and depression.

“While those with frequent bad dreams were more stressed, and were more likely to develop anxiety or depression, the link between bad dreams and future dementia remained strong even when these (and other) factors were taken into account,” Otaiko says. “This suggests that there may be a direct link between dreams and dementia in some individuals.”


I have a lot of bad dreams – should I worry?

As Dr. Otaiko has already pointed out, many things have been associated with an increased risk of dementia – and in general, many of them can be modified throughout our lives to help reduce risk, such as eating a healthy, balanced diet, staying active, not smoking, monitoring our alcohol intake and treating problems such as losing weight. Hearing and social isolation.

And if you’re middle-aged and prone to nightmares? Having frequent bad dreams could be due to things like stress, bad moods, or anxiety. And for many people, having a lot of bad dreams may just be a lifelong tendency,” Otaiko reassures. “I suspect that only a small percentage of recurring bad dreams are due to underlying dementia.”