Frequent bad dreams and nightmares linked to Parkinson’s in new study

About 145,000 people in the UK have had Parkinson's disease diagnosed. Credit: PA

Experiencing bad dreams could be an early warning sign of Parkinson's disease in adults, according to new research.

Results from the University of Birmingham's study suggest bad dreams and nightmares linked to Parkinson's begin a few years before the characteristic features of tremors, stiffness and slowness of movement.

Parkinson's disease - which currently affects around 145,000 people in the UK - is a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years.

What are some of the signs of Parkinson's disease:

  • Handwriting getting smaller

  • Tremors, especially in fingers, hands or feet

  • Uncontrollable movements during sleep

  • Limb stiffness or slow movement

  • Changes to voice or posture

The new study used data from 3,818 men aged 67 years or over from the US Osteoporotic Fractures in Men Study.

None of the participants had Parkinson’s at the start of the research and were asked about the frequency of distressing dreams.

People reporting bad dreams at least once per week were then followed up at the end of the study to see whether they were more likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

During a seven year follow-up, 91 cases of Parkinson’s were diagnosed, most within the first five years of the research.

Those men with frequent bad dreams during the first five years were more than three times as likely to go on to develop Parkinson’s.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know

People with Parkinson's disease have been known to experience vivid nightmares or bad dreams more often than those without it, but this is thought to be the first time they have been identified as an early sign of the condition.

Experts are now looking at extending the research to larger groups of people of both sexes and different backgrounds, and to other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Previous research into the subject suggested that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder - where dreams are acted out - was linked to a higher risk of Parkinson's.

Dr Katherine Fletcher, research communications manager at Parkinson’s UK, said: “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.

“Previous studies have also 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. There is also evidence that bad dreams might be associated with later cognitive decline."

Currently there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, which typically starts to affect people when they are aged over 50.

In April, a hospital in Bristol was believed to have become the first in the world to implant the smallest device into a brain to reverse the symptoms of the disease.