Experiencing bad dreams in your 60s could be an early warning sign of Parkinson’s, according to a new study from the University of Birmingham in the US. Scientists discovered men in the demographic who had nightmares at least once a week were up to three times more likely to develop the condition later in life.
Some 3,800 older men were analysed over 12 years for the study, which could lead to better diagnoses earlier on for many. The researchers behind the work are urging anyone who notices a change in their dreams as they age to seek medical advice.
Identifying Parkinson’s early gives sufferers the best opportunity of having it treated. The condition causes muscles to shake and stiffen and gets progressively worse as brain cells die. Many patients are not diagnosed until tremors start, as there are currently no conclusive tests to determine if a person has Parkinson’s.
Dr Abidemi Otaiku and his team now believe vivid and frightening dreams could be among the earliest signs of the condition. This could be because Parkinson’s damages the part of the brain that regulates emotions during sleep, although this is still just a theory.
All of the participants in the study, which ran from December 2003 to May 2016, were aged 67 or above and none had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s when it began. They came from six cities across the US and were asked to fill in questionnaires about how often they experienced bad dreams.
This information was then cross-referenced with Parkinson’s diagnosis rates during the 12-year period to establish whether there was a link. It was controlled for factors that are associated with both nightmares and Parkinson’s, including insomnia, depression, alcohol, smoking, diabetes and hypertension.
A total of 91 men included in the study went on to develop Parkinson’s, with those self-reporting bad dreams at least once a week two times more likely to be diagnosed with the condition. This increased to 3.38 times in the initial five years of the research.
Scientists investigating which parts of the brain are responsible for dreams have identified the right frontal lobe as being a possible source of distressing episodes. This correlates with Parkinson’s patients’ anatomy, with the condition having a degenerative effect on the organ.
In the UK, one in 500 people are affected by Parkinson’s, with the majority of patients being aged 50 or over. As it progresses, individuals find it increasingly difficult to carry out everyday tasks independently. High-profile sufferers of the condition include Billy Connolly and Michael J Fox.