Nightmares in Middle Age May Lead to Dementia Later

Waking up in a cold sweat after a rough dream doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep. It turns out regular episodes like this may also not be very good for your brain.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom recently analyzed the link between nightmares and dementia, finding that a high prevalence of them in middle age is associated with an increased risk of developing cognitive issues. The study, published in The Lancet’s eClinicalMedicine journal, shows that the risk of developing dementia is also higher for older adults who suffer from bad dreams. The researchers say the findings could help with Alzheimer’s prediction.


Dr. Abidemi Otaiku, study author from the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, explains, “We’ve demonstrated for the first time that distressing dreams, or nightmares, can be linked to dementia risk and cognitive decline among healthy adults in the general population. This is important because there are very few risk indicators for dementia that can be identified as early as middle age. While more work needs to be done to confirm these links, we believe bad dreams could be a useful way to identify individuals at high risk of developing dementia, and put in place strategies to slow down the onset of disease.”

To investigate the connection between bad dreams and dementia, researchers looked at self-reported dream and sleep data from more than 600 American men and women between the ages of 35 and 64, as well as 2,600 adults aged 79 and older. All were cognitively healthy at the start of the study, with the younger group followed for an average of nine years and the older one for an average of five.


Using statistical software, the team investigated whether those with a higher rate of bad dreams were more apt to develop dementia.

They found that among the younger cohort, those who had bad dreams on at least a weekly basis were four times more likely to experience cognitive decline over the following ten years versus those who didn’t have bad dreams, while for the older group, the risk of being diagnosed with dementia was twice as high. This trend was much stronger among the male participants, with older men five times more likely to develop dementia if they had weekly nightmares. With women, it was only a 41% increased risk.

Going forward, the team says they’d like to see if the same risk applies to young people. They’d also like to use EEGs and MRIs to investigate the biological aspects of bad dreams in cognitively healthy people versus those with dementia.

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