The earliest signs of Parkinson’s disease could come in the form of bad dreams or nightmares, according to a new study.
Older men experiencing frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s later on, reported University of Birmingham researchers.
They recommend people experiencing a change in their dreams during older age to speak to a medical professional.
The study’s results suggest that older adults who will later be diagnosed with Parkinson’s are likely to begin experiencing bad dreams and nightmares a few years before developing characteristic symptoms of the disease, such as tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement.
“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,” said lead author Dr Abidemi Otaiku.
The researchers say using nightmares as a risk factor for Parkinson’s disease hadn’t been considered before, although previous studies showed people with the disease experience bad dreams more frequently.
Early diagnosis is valuable, but the study reports there are ‘very few’ risk indicators for the disease – and many are not specific to Parkinson’s or require expensive hospital tests.
The team used data from a large cohort study from the US that had data over a period of 12 years on 3,818 older men living independently.
At the beginning of the study, the men completed a range of questionnaires, one of which included a question about sleep quality.
Participants reporting bad dreams at least once per week were then followed up at the end of the study to see whether they were more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
During the follow-up period, 91 cases of Parkinson’s were diagnosed.
The findings showed that participants experiencing frequent bad dreams were twice as likely to develop the disease compared to those who did not.
Most of the diagnoses happened in the first five years of the study.
Participants with frequent bad dreams during this period were more than three times as likely to go on to develop Parkinson’s.
Researchers say the study, which was published in eClinicalMedicine, shows our dreams can reveal important information about our brain structure and function and may prove to be an important target for neuroscience research.
The team plans to use electroencephalography (EEG) to look at the biological reasons for dream changes.
They will look at replicating the findings in larger and more diverse groups, as well as exploring possible links between dreams and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
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