A study may have linked dreaming to the fight against Dementia. A couple is pictured sleeping on infield grass May 18, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. Getty

A new study may have concluded that dreaming may help fight dementia. According to a report published in the journal Neurology Thursday, there may be a correlation between quality of sleep and the risk of the disease.

The study explored rapid eye movement sleep (REM), or when dreams occur. The study examined the REM stage of sleep and whether REM and dementia development are linked.

The sleep cycle consists of two major stages: REM and non-REM. The first four stages are considered non-REM. Stage one consists of very light sleep and increases to a deeper sleep by stage three. After the third stage, a person reaches REM, when dreams occurred the most. This typically occurs four to five times over an eight-hour period as the sleep cycle repeats.

Researchers studied 321 people with an average age of 61 for a dozen years for the Framingham Heart Study. They measured sleep cycles for each person. Over the duration of the study, 32 people developed dementia and 24 were determined to be Alzheimer’s disease.

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The study found that as the amount of REM sleep decreased, the risk of dementia increased. People who took longer than 90 minutes to enter REM were more likely to develop dementia. They also spent only 17 percent of their sleep dreaming, compared to 20 percent in those who did not develop dementia.

The first author of the new study is Matthew Pase, Ph.D., of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Pase and his team studied data from the large population-based Framingham Heart Study (FHS), which began in 1971.

Researchers discovered a strong link between a higher risk of dementia and a lower percentage of REM sleep. When REM sleep percentages decreased, the researchers discovered a 9 percent increase in the risk of dementia.

Pase expounded on his team’s findings. They omitted subjects with slight cognitive impairments as well as those who developed dementia early on in the study.

"In our study, the association between lower REM sleep and dementia was not explained by those with cognitive impairment at baseline or by those who converted to dementia within the first 3 years, (which) suggests that reduced REM is not simply a consequence of early dementia," he told Medical News Today Thursday.

Regarding the exact influences that could explain his findings, he said that he didn’t have a precise answer, but he did have a few hypotheses.

"Possible mechanisms may include stress or anxiety, which may curtail REM sleep and increase the risk for dementia," he told Medical News Today. "There may be a contributing role of sleep disorders such as sleep-disordered breathing, which may disrupt REM sleep and increase the risk of dementia, and more REM sleep may help maintain brain integrity in the face of changes that occur with aging and early Alzheimer's disease."

The researchers also cited some of the strengths and restrictions of the study. They considered the study’s population-based trait to be a strength and its small sample to be a weakness.

"Although our study is small compared to the larger parent Framingham Heart Study cohort, it is still a large sample given that all participants underwent an overnight sleep study and follow-up for dementia," Pase said.

He added, "There are few other studies that have these data. We are currently investigating whether others have similar data and whether it may be possible to combine analysis and results."