(ORDO NEWS) — The development of nightmares later in life may be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease, according to a new study in older men.
Restless dreams have long been associated with neurological disease, especially among men, but this is the first study to look at whether these symptoms are a warning of Parkinson’s disease or a by-product of the disease.
Tracking the health status of 3,818 older men with normal brain function over 12 years, the researchers found that those who had frequent nightmares were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.
Most diagnoses were made during the first five years of the study.
The results suggest that older people can be tested for Parkinson’s disease by asking them about the content of their dreams. Early action could then be taken to stop the possible onset of physical symptoms such as tremors, stiffness, and sluggishness.
One of the biggest challenges in Parkinson’s disease is early diagnosis. By the time most people know they have the disease, they have already lost 60 to 80 percent of the dopamine-releasing neurons in part of the brainstem.
What’s more, a previous study by the same scientist found that patients with disturbing dreams were five times more likely to have a rapid progression of the disease.
“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, such as diabetes,” explains neurologist Abidemi Otaikou from the University of Birmingham in the UK.
“While we need to do further research in this area, finding out 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.”
Researchers have been studying the link between sleep and Parkinson’s disease for several years.
Approximately a quarter of patients with Parkinson’s disease report frequent disturbing dreams from the time of diagnosis, and some report experiencing bad dreams up to 10 years before diagnosis.
Past research shows that people with Parkinson’s are four times more likely to experience frequent nightmares than people in the general population.
Patients with Parkinson’s disease are also more likely to develop rapid eye movement sleep disorders that result in the physical recurrence of dreams during the night.
However, until now it has not been clear whether these symptoms are a by-product of Parkinson’s disease or prodromal – as scientists call minor symptoms that appear before the main symptoms enter the scene.
The current study helps clarify this distinction by tracking a large sample of older men over more than a decade.
The study found that participants who, according to their own data, often had disturbing dreams, were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease within 12 years.
Moreover, in the first four years of the study, frequent disturbing dreams were associated with a six-fold increase in the risk of developing a neurological disease.
Without further research aimed at measuring brain activity during sleep, it’s hard to tell what’s going on biologically in Parkinson’s patients who have nightmares.
Men with Parkinson’s tend to have more disturbing dreams than women with Parkinson’s, but why this happens remains unclear.
One hypothesis is that the late onset of nightmares is an early sign of neurodegeneration in some men.
Women are significantly more likely to experience regular nightmares early in life, but after age 65, men begin to catch up.
Perhaps as the male brain ages, something changes in the frontal cortex, which regulates emotions during sleep.
The researchers plan to use electroencephalography to find out what it could be.
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