Researchers Find That Violent Dreams May Be Precursor to Dementia

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

"Only in your dreams" can take on an ominous tone in relation to Alzheimer's disease if your dreams become violent and you find that you're acting them out. Mayo Clinic researchers have identified a rare sleep disorder that results in violent dreams has been identified as a potential early sign of dementia and other brain disorders, such as Parkinson's Disease. This study was published in the July 28 edition of Neurology.

"People with a mysterious sleep disturbance called REM sleep behavior disorder, or RBD, experience a sudden change in the nature of dreams," Laura Sanders of Science News reported. "Dreams increasingly become more violent and frequently involve episodes in which an attacker must be fought off. The normal muscle paralysis that accompanies dreams is gone, leaving the dreamer, who is most often male, to act out the dream's punches, twists and yells. In many cases, a person sharing the dreamer's bed can be injured." Fox News reported, "When the person awakes, he or she might vividly recall the dream corresponding to the kicking or thrashing around."

In this study Mayo Clinic researchers examined medical records from Mayo Clinic cases from 2002 to 2006 to pinpoint specific cases of REM sleep behavior disorder. The researchers identified 27 people who had developed RBD at least 15 years before symptoms of neurodegenerative disorders (such as dementia) emerged. Of these patients, 13 developed what was believed to be dementia and mild cognitive impairment, while one person developed Parkinson's-dementia. The researchers said that the dementia category included dementia with Lewy bodies, which is the most common form of progressive dementia and which has recurrent visual hallucinations.
Twelve patients were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease while one person had multiple system atrophy.

Sanders said that researchers found a striking number of RBD patients will develop neurodegenerative disorders and added that "some studies find that anywhere from 80 to 100 percent eventually get a neurodegenerative disorder."
In their analysis, the Mayo Clinic researchers determined that the time between the onset of the sleep disorder and the onset of symptoms of the neurologic disorders could be up to 50 years, although the median interval was 25 years. In six cases, the sleep disorder was first noticed by a spouse during a honeymoon or shortly afterward.
"The researchers can't estimate how frequently this happens in the general population, because patients were selected to have a minimum interval of 15 years between the onset of RBD and diagnosis of neurodegenerative disease," Sanders stated. "But finding such long intervals between diseases was unexpected."

Researchers hope that identifying RBD early will help them to develop treatments that can be used to protect the brain before it becomes severely damaged. Therefore, I'd encourage you to talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is having these types of dreams. By catching RBD early, you and your doctor can consider potential treatments that may slow the development of any neurodegenerative disorders, such as dementia or Parkinson, and can be vigilant to identify the development of any early symptoms of these diseases.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.