People are more likely to be diagnosed with dementia later in life if they experience recurrent nightmares at middle age, says new study.

The researchers, at the University of Birmingham, suggest that bad dreams are likely to become prevalent years later, even before the issues associated with dementia, such as characteristic memory and thinking problems, develop.

Dr Abidemi Otaiku, of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Human Brain Health, explained: “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.”

The study involved collecting and analysing data from more than 600 adult middle-aged men and women (aged 35 to 64), and 2,600 adults aged over 78, who were all dementia-free when the study began. Follow-ups took place nine years later for the younger group and five years for the older group.

Data began being collected between 2002 and 2012 and included questionnaires completed by the participants, such as the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index which asks a question regarding the frequency of experiencing nightmares.

Statistical software was used to analyse the data to identify if a higher frequency of bad dreams was linked to experiencing cognitive decline and being diagnosed with dementia years later.

Results showed that middle aged people who have regular bad dreams are four times more likely to experience cognitive decline over the next 10 years, while older people and two times more likely to develop dementia.

The study discovered that these associations were stronger for men. Older men having bad dreams weekly were five times more likely to develop dementia than those experiencing no bad dreams. However, for women, the risk only increased by 41 per cent.

The research summarised: “This study provides evidence for the first time that a higher frequency of distressing dreams in community-dwelling adults without cognitive impairment or PD, is positively associated with faster cognitive decline during midlife, and increased risk of developing dementia during later-life.”

It added: “As such, this study suggests that screening for distressing dreams in the general population may help to identify individuals in the preclinical phase of dementia, in whom early interventions to prevent cognitive impairment could be targeted.”

The research was published in The Lancet journal eClinicalMedicine.

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