Are you at risk for dementia?
Whether or not you tend to remember your dreams, everyone can recall that most terrifying nightmare. Maybe you were being chased by someone or something. Or you were late for a big exam. Or all your teeth fell out. Whatever it was, you probably woke up in a panic, only to realize (with enormous relief) that it was just a dream. But if you tend to have scary dreams often—and, even more telling, if you frequently scream, kick, or thrash around in your sleep—your brain could be at risk.
Frequent nightmares could be caused by REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD), a condition that causes patients to physically act out violent dreams. Researchers have found that more than 80 per cent of RBD patients eventually develop a neurological disease, such as Parkinson’s or dementia. (Learn the 50 habits that reduce your dementia risk.)
“For some reason, the cells in the REM sleep area are the first to be sickened, and then the neurodegenerative disease spreads up into the brain and affects the other areas that cause disorders like Parkinson’s disease,” John Peever, PhD, the neuroscientist at the University of Toronto who led this new research, told Live Science. “REM behaviour disorder is, in fact, the best-known predictor of the onset of Parkinson’s disease.” (Find out 25 things your dreams reveal about you.)
Two studies from 2013 also found that more than 80 per cent of RBD patients developed a neurodegenerative disorder within a decade, but those studies were only able to show correlation. The more recent study, which was presented at the Canadian Neuroscience Meeting in 2017, proves causality.
And while RBD is terrifying for those who suffer from it, the condition could help doctors identify who’s most at risk for other neurodegenerative disorders. According to Peever, the next step in his research would be to develop a drug therapy that can treat patients who have been diagnosed with RBD. “Such a therapy would likely not cure the patient of RBD, since the brain cells that cause that disorder would have already been damaged,” he told Live Science, “but it could prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the brain.”
Scientists still have a long way to go before they eliminate neurodegenerative disorders. But there are a few things that they know can help prevent these conditions.
Next, check out the early signs of Alzheimer’s every adult should know.