We all know how important sleep is to our mental and physical health. But how you sleep can be an early indicator for later health issues. If someone has noticed that you act out your dreams, especially yelling, punching, kicking or getting out of bed, you may be living with rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder, also known as RBD.
During normal REM, the time when we dream, the brain prevents movement. But for those with RBD, brain pathways are disrupted and people are able to act out their dreams. People with the condition often have very active dreams in which they’re playing sports, running or even being chased or attacked.
Sleep problems, including this one, are common in people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Although not everyone with RBD develops Parkinson’s, studies suggest a strong link between having the condition and a future diagnosis of Parkinson’s or related conditions. RBD can occur years before more well-known symptoms, such as tremors, stiffness or slowness. Other possible early signs of Parkinson’s include constipation, depression and smell loss.
“My symptoms were varied: a shuffling, arm tremors, loss of coordination and difficulties speaking, sleeping and focusing,” says Larry Gifford, a Canadian journalist diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 46. “Symptoms began appearing three or four years before, but I never linked them. Through those undiagnosed years, doctors tell me I lost approximately eighty per cent of my dopamine-producing brain cells.”
If you have symptoms, including acting out your dreams, talk to your doctor. Other sleep problems may mimic RBD, so it’s important for a sleep specialist to confirm the diagnosis. Once diagnosed, a movement disorder specialist (a neurologist with expertise in Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders) can help provide care and offer an individualized treatment plan.
You also may want to consider joining a research study. In Canada, The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s landmark brain health study, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), follows people with and without Parkinson’s over time to learn more about how brain disease starts and changes. It’s exploring the connection between RBD and brain disease to understand who gets Parkinson’s, who doesn’t and why. Find more information about the study or learn how to get involved at michaeljfox.org/ppmi