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Sleep walking and talking could be an early warning sign of dementia, scientists warn

Country Living UK logo Country Living UK 1/06/2017 Jenny Cook

REM sleep disorder could be an early warning sign of dementia, scientists warn © Tetra Images / Getty REM sleep disorder could be an early warning sign of dementia, scientists warn Sleep walking and/or talking (while annoying for bed-sharers) is rarely thought of as a cause for concern. However, new research from Canada now suggests that people who suffer from REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD) – a condition which causes the individual to physically move and engage in other activities associated with waking whilst asleep – are more at risk of developing certain neurodegenerative diseases later in life. 

The study

The research team called upon prior knowledge about the inner workings of the brainstem – a key region of the mind responsible for controlling dreams – to examine how dreaming disorders such as RBD can affect our brains. Commenting on their findings, Dr John Peever, who led the research, said:

"We observed that more than 80% of people who suffer from REM sleep disorder eventually develop synucleinopathies, such as Parkinson's disease, and Lewy body dementia. Our research suggests sleep disorders may be an early warning sign for diseases that may appear some 15 years later in life."

This sounds pretty drastic, but it's important to remember that the odd bit of sleep talking or walking doesn't necessarily mean you have RBD, and is generally nothing to worry about. Besides, Dr Peever has voiced hopes that such findings will pave the way for development of protective strategies.

"Much like we see in people prone to cancer, diagnosing REM disorders may allow us to provide individuals with preventative actions to keep them healthy long before they develop these more serious neurological conditions."

In the UK, it is estimated that around 127,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease, while more than 100,000 have some form of Lewy Body Dementia.

Why do we sleep walk/talk?

Aside from suffering from RBD, here are some other reasons that could explain your active sleeping habits.

  • It's in the family. If you have a parent or sibling who sleep walks, studies show you are up to ten times more likely to do so yourself.
  • You're stressed. Stress is often cited as a trigger for both sleep talking and walking, which is why it's so important to take some time to wind down before bed.
  • Drinking too much. Ever noticed that alcohol makes you or your partner more prone to snoring? It's the same with sleep talking and walking.

The research was presented at the 2017 Canadian Neuroscience Meeting.

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