If This Happens to You at Night, You May Be at Increased Risk of Dementia, New Study Finds

It may seem harmless, but it could signal a serious problem.

Right now, 55 million individuals are living with dementia worldwide, experts say—and that number is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades. Though there is no cure for dementia, early diagnosis has many benefits, including increased quality of life, more effective treatments and therapies, and the chance to make important decisions about your healthcare. That's why it pays to know the signs that you may be at heightened risk for dementia—including one which may occur at night. Read on to learn which red flag could mean your dementia risk is up to five times higher, according to a new study.

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Sleep has long been linked with dementia risk.

older man with dementiia looking out window

Your sleep patterns may offer a window into your cognitive health and dementia risk, if you know what to look for. For instance, some studies have found that people who get too little sleep—six hours or less—are at increased risk of dementia. Other research has shown that too much sleep is also associated with higher dementia risk, though causality has not been established.

Other sleep characteristics, like what time you fall asleep and wake up, whether you suffer from sleep apnea, and total time you spend in bed, can also provide insight into your likelihood of developing dementia. Now, a new study is adding an additional sleep feature which may tip you off to your dementia risk level.

READ THIS NEXT: Napping at This Time Boosts Your Brain Health, Study Says.

If this happens to you at night, you may be at heightened dementia risk.

Insomnia, sleep apnea or stress concept. Sleepless woman awake and covering face in the middle of the night. Lady can't sleep. Nightmares or depression. Suffering from headache or migraine.

Frequent nightmares may be indicative of future cognitive decline, a new study published in The Lancet's eClinicalMedicine Journal suggests. Researchers looked at the association between self-reported nightmare frequency and the risk of dementia in middle-aged and senior adults, and found that both men and women who had weekly nightmares were at significantly heightened risk.

"After adjustment for all covariates, a higher frequency of distressing dreams was linearly and statistically significantly associated with higher risk of cognitive decline amongst middle-aged adults, and higher risk of incident all-cause dementia amongst older adults. Compared with middle-aged adults who reported having no distressing dreams at baseline, those who reported having weekly distressing dreams had a 4-fold risk of experiencing cognitive decline," the study authors concluded.

The association was stronger for men than women.

depressed senior person sitting in bed cannot sleep from insomnia

Though both men and women with frequent nightmares had heightened dementia risk, they researchers found that the association was much stronger for men than for women. "Older men who had nightmares every week were five times more likely to develop dementia compared with older men reporting no bad dreams," Abidemi Otaiku, study author and an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Neurology at the University of Birmingham, told The Conversation. "In women, however, the increase in risk was only 41 percent."

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Bad dreams don't necessarily mean you'll develop dementia.


The study authors believe that tracking frequent nightmares could help lead to earlier diagnosis for dementia patients. "Overall, these results suggest frequent nightmares may be one of the earliest signs of dementia, which can precede the development of memory and thinking problems by several years or even decades—especially in men," Otaiku says.

Of course, nightmares are a relatively common phenomenon and do not necessarily mean you'll develop dementia. In many people, distressing dreams are caused by stress, medication side effects, and other factors, and do not reflect cognitive decline. However, if you do notice frequently having distressing dreams, it's important to discuss them with your doctor—especially if other signs of dementia are present. "These findings may help to identify individuals at risk of dementia and could facilitate early prevention strategies," the researchers note.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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