Studies have shown that age is the top risk factor for developing a neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. This disconcerting fact leaves many of us wondering if there are steps we can take to prevent the onset of these conditions—or warning signs that we should be on the lookout for. As it turns out, new research suggests that your subconscious could actually be hinting at a future Parkinson’s diagnosis. Read on to learn about the dreams that could be a sign you need to speak with your doctor.
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According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, almost one million people in the U.S. have Parkinson’s disease, and nearly 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The debilitating condition often presents near age 60, but some people develop early-onset Parkinson’s before they turn 50.
There is no cure for the disease, which is a movement disorder categorized by tremors, slowing of movement, and muscle stiffening. These symptoms are different depending on the patient and can also include non-motor symptoms such as cognitive changes and depression, the Parkinson’s Foundation says. And one of these non-motor symptoms has been cited as a potential warning sign for Parkinson’s disease—appearing several years or even decades prior to the appearance of motor symptoms.
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If you are experiencing “dream enactment,” meaning that you act out what is occurring in your dreams, you could actually have a sleep disorder. This occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle and could include making noises, talking and shouting, or “lashing out” and waking up from dreams, ABC News reported. People who experience this are diagnosed with REM sleep behavior disorder, also known as RBD.
Normally when you enter your REM cycle each night—which is when dreaming occurs—your brain will inhibit muscle movement. According to an “Ask the MD” blog post written by neurologist Rachel Dolhun, MD, movement disorder specialist and head of medical communications for the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), people with RBD have a different experience during this phase of sleep.
“In RBD, the brain pathways that suppress muscle activity are disrupted, and people are able to move to act out their dreams,” Dolhun wrote.
Interestingly, previous studies have linked this sleep disorder with Parkinson’s disease, with 30 to 41 percent of patients having been diagnosed with RBD prior to Parkinson’s. And while not everyone with RBD will develop Parkinson’s, studies show a strong link between the sleep disorder and Parkinson’s, as well as other conditions such as dementia with Lewy bodies or multiple system atrophy.
Funded by the MJFF, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) is aimed at determining who is most at risk for developing Parkinson’s and why. As part of the initiative, researchers are recruiting patients with RBD to better understand the connection between the sleep disorder and Parkinson’s disease.
“People who live with RBD can help researchers understand how and why Parkinson’s comes on from the very earliest moments so that we can work on getting to that cure and even preventing the disease from happening,” Dolhun said during an appearance on Good Morning America. “It’s one of our first steps towards curing and preventing Parkinson’s, something that we can’t do today.”
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If your bed partner notices that you have symptoms of RBD, you may want to seek out a sleep doctor, Dolhun said in her blog post. An expert will be able to ask you about sleep habits to get a better sense of the issue and eliminate any contributing factors (such as substance use, and medication side effects).
To confirm a diagnosis and eliminate other sleep problems that can mimic RBD, an overnight sleep study is necessary. During the study, your brain waves and muscle activity are recorded. A video could also be taken while you sleep to show you how your dreams are being acted out, according to Dolhun’s blog post.
During an interview on Good Morning America, chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton, MD, spoke on the challenges of diagnosing RBD. Sleep studies are necessary but often difficult to access, she said, and older adults who live alone may not realize they are doing these things during sleep.
Current treatment options for RBD are really just a “Band-Aid” to treat the symptoms, Ashton said, which cannot be improved until more is understood about why the sleep disorder occurs. Supplements such as melatonin may be recommended or clonazepam could be prescribed for RBD, and behavioral changes are key. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is vital, according to Ashton, and you will want to create a safe sleeping environment that is “cold, dark, and quiet.” This will not only help with the neurologic aspects but also overall health, Ashton said.
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