Research shows bad dreams could predict future memory and thinking problems

Researchers in Portugal have discovered that the content of dreams, particularly those with negative emotions, may predict long-term cognitive decline in people with Parkinson’s.

Results published in the Journal of Sleep Research have identified a link between dream content and future performance in cognitive tests - designed to test thinking, planning and memory - after 4 years.

Previous studies have shown that the dreams of people with Parkinson’s can include more aggressive content, being overall more vivid and nightmarish, than those of people without the condition. 

Now researchers have reported that these kinds of bad dreams are significantly associated with future cognitive decline.

Sleep and Parkinson’s

Many people with Parkinson’s experience sleep and night-time problems. While they can be experienced at any stage, research has often focused on those symptoms that may appear in the early stages of the condition, before diagnosis, as they may help to predict who will develop Parkinson’s in the future.

One particular sleep problem, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder, has been linked to a high risk of Parkinson’s. It is estimated that over 70% of those with REM sleep disorder will go on to develop the condition, although having this disorder alone is not enough to predict a future diagnosis.

Now research is looking at what other clues about the future our sleep may hold.

Dr Beckie Port, Research Manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: 

“This innovative study seeks to answer a very tricky question about Parkinson’s: who will develop cognitive issues - such as difficulties with memory, thinking and planning - and who will not.

“Studies suggest that people with Parkinson’s are up to 6 times more likely to develop dementia than people without the condition, and knowing if someone may be at more risk could help people plan for the future and ensure the right support and treatment options are available.

“This study is small-scale, however it’s a significant finding and more work is needed to determine how it can improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s in the future.”

Discover more about sleep and Parkinson’s

Sleep and night-time problems, including insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness, are common in Parkinson’s but there are techniques you can use to manage them.