Childhood Nightmares a Prelude to Cognitive Problems, Parkinson's?

Megan Brooks

March 06, 2023

Children who suffer from persistent bad dreams may be at increased risk for cognitive impairment or Parkinson's disease (PD) later in life, new research shows.

Compared with children who never had distressing dreams between ages 7 and 11 years, those who had persistent distressing dreams were 76% more likely to develop cognitive impairment and roughly seven times more likely to develop PD by age 50 years.

It's been shown previously that sleep problems in adulthood, including distressing dreams, can precede the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) or PD by several years, and in some cases decades, study investigator Abidemi Otaiku, BMBS, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News.

However, no studies have investigated whether distressing dreams during childhood might also be associated with increased risk for cognitive decline or PD.

"As such, these findings provide evidence for the first time that certain sleep problems in childhood (having regular distressing dreams) could be an early indicator of increased dementia and PD risk," Otaiku said.

He noted that the findings build on previous studies which showed that regular nightmares in childhood could be an early indicator for psychiatric problems in adolescence, such as borderline personality disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and psychosis.

The study was published online February 26 in The Lancet journal eClinicalMedicine.

Statistically Significant

The prospective, longitudinal analysis used data from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study, a prospective birth cohort which included all people born in Britain during a single week in 1958.


At age 7 years (in 1965) and 11 years (in 1969), mothers were asked to report whether their child experienced "bad dreams or night terrors" in the past 3 months, and cognitive impairment and PD were determined at age 50 (2008).

Among a total of 6991 children (51% girls), 78.2% never had distressing dreams, 17.9% had transient distressing dreams (either at ages 7 or 11 years), and 3.8% had persistent distressing dreams (at both ages 7 and 11 years).

By age 50, 262 participants had developed cognitive impairment, and five had been diagnosed with PD.

After adjusting for all covariates, having more regular distressing dreams during childhood was "linearly and statistically significantly" associated with higher risk of developing cognitive impairment or PD by age 50 years (P = .037). This was the case in both boys and girls.

Compared with children who never had bad dreams, peers who had persistent distressing dreams (at ages 7 and 11 years) had an 85% increased risk for cognitive impairment or PD by age 50 (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.85; 95% CI, 1.10-3.11; P = .019).

The associations remained when incident cognitive impairment and incident PD were analyzed separately.

Compared with children who never had distressing dreams, children who had persistent distressing dreams were 76% more likely to develop cognitive impairment by age 50 years (aOR, 1.76; 95% CI, 1.03-2.99; P = .037), and were about seven times more likely to be diagnosed with PD by age 50 years (aOR, 7.35; 95% CI, 1.03-52.73; P = .047).

The linear association was statistically significant for PD (P = .050) and had a trend toward statistical significance for cognitive impairment (P = .074).

Mechanism Unclear

"Early life nightmares might be causally associated with cognitive impairment and PD, non-causally associated with cognitive impairment and PD, or both. At this stage it remains unclear which of the three options is correct. Therefore, further research on mechanisms is needed," Otaiku told Medscape Medical News.

"One plausible non-causal explanation is that there are shared genetic factors which predispose individuals to having frequent nightmares in childhood, and to developing neurodegenerative diseases such as AD or PD in adulthood," he added.

It's also plausible that having regular nightmares throughout childhood could be a causal risk factor for cognitive impairment and PD by causing chronic sleep disruption, he noted.

"Chronic sleep disruption due to nightmares might lead to impaired glymphatic clearance during sleep — and thus greater accumulation of pathological proteins in the brain, such as amyloid-beta and alpha-synuclein," Otaiku said.

Disrupted sleep throughout childhood might also impair normal brain development, which could make children's brains less resilient to neuropathologic damage, he said.

Clinical Implications?

There are established treatments for childhood nightmares, including nonpharmacologic approaches.

"For children who have regular nightmares that lead to impaired daytime functioning, it may well be a good idea for them to see a sleep physician to discuss whether treatment may be needed," Otaiku said.

But should doctors treat children with persistent nightmares for the purpose of preventing neurodegenerative diseases in adulthood or psychiatric problems in adolescence?

"It's an interesting possibility. However, more research is needed to confirm these epidemiological associations and to determine whether or not nightmares are a causal risk factor for these conditions," Otaiku concluded.

The study received no external funding. Otaiku reports no relevant disclosures.

EClinicalMedicine. Published online February 26, 2023. Full text

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