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How your dreams change with age

How your dreams change with age

Scientists agree that several constant themes frequently emerge starting in childhood and through different life stages

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Since he retired in 2020, physician Paul Volberding frequently has the same dream: He’s back at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980s caring for AIDS patients and losing many of them. It’s stressful, just as it was in his waking life.

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“I haven’t worked there for many years and never felt I wanted to go back,” said Volberding, 74, who was a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “But that part of my career was so intense. I was so involved in it, and what I was doing was so important. I think that it got etched into my neurons.”

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Before retirement, Volberding never had dreams about work. They started in recent years and are strikingly distinct from the dreams he had as a young adult. “When I was in my 40s, I would dream more about relationships and intimacy,” he said. “Since I’ve gotten older, my dreams have changed. Sometimes I dream I’m driving on a long road and don’t know where I am. Or I arrive at the airport and realize I haven’t packed, or I’ve missed my flight.”

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It’s one of the mysteries that sleep scientists still ponder. Do dreams change as we age? If so, how and why?

Research suggests that they do, and experts say it’s probably because of changes that occur over the life span, including in jobs, relationships, trauma, even death. Dreams often reflect these changes in ways that can be disturbing as well as pleasant. They also can include old memories that the elderly relive while sleeping, such as dreaming you are back at an old job long after leaving it.

Dreaming “is a product of age,” said Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, who has studied dreams for more than 50 years. “It’s open season for the mind. If you pay attention to them, you can learn about yourself. Dreams support the idea that they are the continuity of our waking life.”

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Dream themes across the life span

While dream content can be difficult to analyze because people often forget their dreams, scientists agree that several constant themes frequently emerge starting in childhood and through different life stages.

Children typically have more animals in their dreams than adults, said Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher, author and founder of the Sleep and Dream Database. “It’s likely because they have pets, or they relate to stories they have read about animals, like ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ or ‘Cat in the Hat.’ Animals in dreams often symbolize our instincts and impulses, and children often feel more in tune with animals.

Children also have more nightmares, “which goes against the idea of childhood as being blissful and carefree and innocent,” he added. “Children are aware of how small they are in a world of big trucks. Their biggest fear is abandonment, loss of parental care. A recurrent childhood dream is of being kidnapped.”

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Dream themes change in adolescence. The dreams of teens and young adults frequently are “hotter,” Bulkeley said, meaning “more sex and aggression, more intense social interactions, and then tend to cool off somewhat as we get older.”

As we age, the frequency of erotic dreams and sports dreams declines, said Michael Schredl, research director of the Sleep Laboratory at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany. While students are more likely to dream about friends, the elderly more often dream about relatives, he said. Older people also have nightmares less often, he said. But dreams about people who have died increase.

Older people also report dreams of being lost in a strange environment, or of searching for their car in a foreign city, Schredl said. “And there are a substantial number of work-related dreams in retired persons, often negatively toned – being back in the old job – if the job was stressful.”

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Reconnecting with late loved ones is a recurring scenario. “One big change as we age is that death becomes a bigger theme,” Bulkeley said. “Older people have more dreams about death and visitation from people who have died. If you wish for something strong enough, your dreams can create that for you.”

Bulkeley believes dreams “explore the slippage between our public identities and our personal selves,” he said, noting that work, for most people, is part of their identity. “Maybe we’re trying to tie up loose ends. Dreaming about lingering unresolved issues may be a way of doing something about them. While it sometimes may be painful, it’s for the cause of our growth and wholeness.”

How women’s dreams change as they age

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Monique Lortie-Lussier, retired adjunct professor of social psychology at the University of Ottawa, said her dream research has focused on women. She has found women’s dreams become more enjoyable when they are older, no longer riddled with family or workplace conflict.

“The dreams I collected from much older women are different from those I collected from women in their 30s and 40s,” she said. “In women over 65, the emotions are generally positive, with pleasant social interactions. There is very little aggression.”

Lortie-Lussier, 95, no longer writes academic papers but still dreams of them, stressing over where she should submit them and which journals will publish them. “I guess I am still an achiever,” she said.

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She said she occasionally dreams about her late husband, who was suffering from dementia when he died 15 years ago. When she dreams of him, however, he is healthy. “I never dream of him as a sick person,” she said. “He does not have dementia, and I am so glad to be with him again. They are quite pleasant dreams.”

She has four children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, but “I dream very little of my dearest ones,” she said. “They are the part of my life that I enjoy. It must be that I am contented enough with their actual lives, so I don’t need to dream about them.”

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