However, given the central role that dreams play in our lives, we still know very little about why we dream, how the brain creates dreams, and most importantly, how important our dreams may be to our health, especially that of our brain. .
My latest study, published in The Lancet’s Clinical medicine daily, shows that our dreams can reveal a surprising amount of information about our brain health.
More specifically, it shows that having bad dreams and frequent nightmares (bad dreams that wake you up) during middle age or older may be linked to an increased risk of developing dementia.
In the study, I analyzed data from three large US studies of health and aging. These include more than 600 people aged 35-64 and 2,600 people aged 79 and over.
All participants were dementia-free at the start of the study and were followed for an average of nine years for the middle-aged group and five years for the older participants.
At the start of the study (2002-12), participants completed a series of questionnaires, including one asking how often they experienced bad dreams and nightmares.
I analyzed the data to find out whether participants with a higher frequency of nightmares at the start of the study were more likely to experience cognitive decline (a rapid decline in memory and thinking skills over time) and to be diagnosed with dementia
I found that middle-aged participants who experienced nightmares every week were four times more likely to experience cognitive decline (a precursor to dementia) in the following decade, while older participants were twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia
Interestingly, the connection between nightmares and future dementia was much stronger for men than for women.
For example, older men who had nightmares every week were five times more likely to develop dementia compared to older men who reported no nightmares.
In women, however, the increased risk was only 41 percent. I found a very similar pattern in the middle-aged group.
Overall, these results suggest that frequent nightmares may be one of the first signs of dementia, which may precede the development of memory and thinking problems by several years or even decades, especially in men.
Alternatively, it is also possible that having bad dreams and regular nightmares could even be a cause of dementia.
Given the nature of this study, it is not possible to be certain which of these theories is correct (although I suspect it is the former). However, regardless of which theory turns out to be true, the main implication of the study remains the same, namely that having bad dreams and regular nightmares during middle and old age may be linked to an increased risk of develop dementia later in life. .
The good news is that recurring nightmares are treatable. And the first-line medical treatment for nightmares has already been shown to decrease the build-up of abnormal proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
There have also been case reports showing improvements in memory and thinking skills after treating nightmares.
These findings suggest that treating nightmares could help slow cognitive decline and prevent dementia from developing in some people. This will be an important avenue to explore in future research.
The next steps in my research will include investigating whether nightmares in young people could also be linked to an increased risk of dementia. This could help determine whether nightmares cause dementia or are simply an early sign in some people.
I also plan to investigate whether other characteristics of dreams, such as how often we remember our dreams and how vivid they are, can also help determine how likely people are to develop dementia in the future.
This research may not only help shed light on the relationship between dementia and dreams, and provide new opportunities for earlier diagnosis, and possibly earlier intervention, but may also shed new light on the nature and function of the mysterious phenomenon. that we call sleep. .
Abidemi Otaiku, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Neurology, University of Birmingham
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.