Having bad dreams as a child can trigger ‘killer brain disorders’ in adults | The Sun

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Dr Abidemi Otaiku, a clinical research fellow specialising in neurology at the University of Birmingham, identified a link between having bad dreams as a child and developing cognitive impairment or Parkinson's disease later in life.

Cognitive impairment refers to when a person struggles with memory and other types of thinking.

A person with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is more likely to go on to develop dementia, experts at the Alzheimer's Society state.

Dementia is a leading cause of death in the UK and around 55million people are living with the condition worldwide.

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Dr Otaiku found that kids who had persistent bad dreams were 76 per cent more likely to develop cognitive impairment by the age of 50, he wrote in The Conversation.

"These results suggest that having regular bad dreams and nightmares during childhood may increase the risk of developing progressive brain diseases like dementia or Parkinson’s disease later in life," Dr Otaiku wrote in The Conversation.

Dr Otaiku added: "The frequency with which we experience nightmares as children is to a large degree determined by our genetics.

"And one gene known to increase our risk of having regular nightmares (PTPRJ) is also linked to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age.

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"So it’s possible that nightmares and progressive brain diseases are both caused by a shared set of genes."

Children having nightmares were also 640 per cent more likely to develop Parkinson’s. This was the case for both boys and girls.

But he noted that further studies would be needed to determine whether bad dreams and nightmares actually cause these conditions.

Dr Otaiku also suggested "that reducing bad dream frequency during early life could be an early opportunity to prevent both conditions".

He reached these conclusions by analysing data from a study which followed the lives of 6,991 children born in England, Scotland and Wales during the week of March 3–9, 1958.

When the children were aged seven and eleven, their mothers answered questions about their health, including whether they had experienced bad dreams in the previous three months.

Dr Otaiku grouped children by whether they had bad dreams 'occasionally', 'persistently' or 'never' .

He then used statistical software to determine whether the children with regular bad dreams were more likely to develop cognitive impairment or be diagnosed with Parkinson’s by the time they turned 50.

Dr Otaiku also speculated that nightmares might cause brain diseases by disrupting sleep, which helps restore the brain.

But Dr Otaiku stressed that we shouldn't be overly alarmed by these results.

Putting his findings into context, he noted that only 268 (4 percent) of the roughly 7,000 children included the study had persistent bad dreams according to their mothers.

Of these children, only 17 developed cognitive impairment or Parkinson’s disease by age 50.

"So it is likely that the vast majority of people who have persistent bad dreams in childhood are not going to develop early-onset dementia or Parkinson’s," Dr Otaiku wrote.

What causes night terrors and nightmares?

Night terrors and nightmares are different and happen at different stages of sleep, NHS guidance says.

While it's rare to remember a night terror, nightmares are bad dreams you wake up from and remember.

Night terrors mainly affect children but nightmares can affect both children and adults.

Common causes for both can include:

  • being very tired or unwell
  • sudden noises at night or needing to pee during the night (which can affect your deep sleep)
  • something that's frightened you (such as watching a scary film) or made you stressed, anxious or worried

Others include:

  • taking certain medicines, such as antidepressants
  • conditions that affect sleep, such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnoea
  • mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder
  • conditions that affect the brain, such as dementia

But he said being aware of the link between nightmares and the conditions could mean there is a window of opportunity to lower their risk by implementing simple strategies.

"And for young people with frequent distressing dreams that persist over time, getting help for nightmares might be one such strategy," he suggested.

Dr Otaiku last year found that older men were twice as likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson's after they started experiencing bad dreams.

The progressive neurological condition leads brain cells to die, causing a lack of the chemical dopamine, which acts as a messenger to coordinate movement.

The three main symptoms are involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body, slow movement, and stiff and inflexible muscles.

Studies have also linked sleep habits to dementia, finding that people slept for more than eight hours a night had a higher risk of developing the condition.

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People who suffer disrupted sleep also have an added risk.

Dr Abidemi Otaiku is a National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) academic clinical fellow in neurology at the University of Birmingham.

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