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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Distressing Dreams in Childhood May Predict Cognitive Impairment, PD by Age 50

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

a child sleeping with a stuffed animal

a child screaming in a bed

The likelihood of developing cognitive impairment or Parkinson disease in adulthood may be tied to experiencing frequent nightmares in childhood.

Experiencing distressing dreams in childhood may be associated with an increased risk for cognitive impairment and Parkinson disease (PD) during adulthood, according to study findings published in the journal eClinicalMedicine.

Several recent studies have shown that the occurrence of frequent bad dreams and nightmares among adults may be an early sign or a potentially modifiable risk factor for the development of both PD and dementia — with the latter known as a type of cognitive impairment. Evidence also suggests that experiencing regular distressing dreams in the middle adult years may be linked to an elevated risk for PD or cognitive impairment a few decades later.

In the current analysis, researchers sought to explore whether having distressing dreams during childhood can be linked to the risk for PD or cognitive impairment by age 50. For the longitudinal analysis, researchers utilized 50 years of prospectively obtained data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study to investigate the possible link. The British Birth Cohort Study is a prospective birth cohort that comprised all individuals who had been born in Great Britain during a single week in 1958.

The base study population comprised 11,721 individuals who were enrolled at birth in 1958, and had information available on distressing dreams in 1965 (at age 7) and in 1969 (at age 11). Following numerous study exclusions, the final analytical sample included a total of 6991 children with follow-up available at age 50.

"[I]t is possible that early treatment of distressing dreams could become a primary prevention strategy for dementia and PD."

All of the data gathered on the children’s distressing dreams were collected prospectively from their mothers in 1965, then again in 1969. The mothers were requested to report whether their child had experienced “bad dreams or night terrors” in the prior 3 months by providing a “yes” or a “no” response. The participants were divided into 3 groups, according to the presence or lack thereof of distressing dreams at ages 7 and 11:


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