The Impact of Dreams on Dementia

A friend of mine keeps a journal at her bedside to record her dreams. That’s not something I practice. I can easily recall my dreams as I still feel the impact of them in the morning.

When my first husband died, I frequently received emails from his brother who recounted his dreams of his brother flying. It was freeing for him to imagine such a thing. Now that both of my parents are deceased, they appear frequently in my dreams. One day they were backing out of the garage in the family car and left a bag of Christmas presents behind for us. I felt joyous and sad at the same time.

Dreams tell us something about our lives when we’re awake. They can also inform us about our sleep. The nature of those bedtime hours is a large factor in determining how we function cognitively when we age.

When Dreams Become Scary

Using statistical modeling, Dr. Abidemi Otaiku at the University of Birmingham culled data about dreams from three studies from over 600 middle-aged adults aged 35 to 64, and 2,600 people aged 79 and older.

The study found, “middle-aged people who experienced bad dreams at least once a week were four times more likely to experience cognitive decline over the following decade than those who rarely had nightmares. Among elderly participants, those who frequently reported distressing dreams were twice as likely to be diagnosed with dementia in subsequent years.”

While theorists suspect that those who experience “bad dreams” also experience “bad sleep,” Otaiku considered how individuals with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are often impacted in their brain’s right frontal lobe which is where our emotions are turned off and on, especially at night. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “We know that neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease often start many years before somebody is diagnosed. In some individuals who already have underlying disease, bad dreams and nightmares might be one of the earliest signs.”

As I finished writing my latest book, I dreamt of my father who died before my mother. In that dream, he and I sat outside beneath the shade of a silver maple behind the family home. Pansies grew in the nooks and crannies, and some flowers ventured out beneath the umbrella of the leaves toward the sun. When I woke, I knew this was my father telling me I had cared for my mother in the best way possible. Now, it was time to reach for the light of her life and my own.

Tracking How We Sleep

I live in the city. I’m accustomed to background noises. During the pandemic, I had difficulty sleeping because fewer cars and buses rumbled past. A lesser number of people walked the streets. To make up for the lack of city noise, I use a white noise machine, especially when I travel. I know plenty of others who use one too. When that fails, some might turn to a sleep app for a good night’s snooze.

What is a sleep app?

There are a variety of apps, such as Calm or Sleepscore, available now for those who struggle with sleep through the night. These apps can help inform how well they really are slumbering. Some incorporate storytelling, meditation and other calming measures to aid in a good night’s rest.

How do they work?

Most apps include accelerometers. These are small motion detectors to measure how much movement you’re making while you sleep. This data is then analyzed using an algorithm to estimate sleep time and quality.

I’ve never used one, but some of my children who have difficulty sleeping rely on them heavily, including some that incorporate ASMR. According to the, ASMR “stands for autonomous sensory meridian response; a term used to describe a tingling, static-like, or goosebumps sensation in response to specific triggering audio or visual stimuli. These sensations are said to spread across the skull or down the back of the neck and, for some, down the spine or limbs.” Each user responds to stimuli in a different fashion. One person might find it soothing to hear whispering, while another might find it relaxing to hear a constant tapping sound. My son-in-law uses ASMR frequently to calm himself in a variety of situations.

Some of us experience and remember dreams that guide us through our day. Or we use them to reflect on our life. If our dreams are trending toward negative emotions, it’s time to re-evaluate those emotions, while also finding ways to ease the mind before bed.

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine,, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Italian Americana & Italy Segreta (forthcoming). Visit to learn more.