A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia, which affects 5.3 million people) can be scary and confusing—for the person affected, as well as family members and friends. Learn how the disease can affect someone's sleep, so you know what to expect and how you can help. If you're a caregiver, try to help the patient understand the following.
- Nighttime Awakenings Are Common.
Dementia often causes a change in sleep patterns. In fact, as many as 50 percent of those who have mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s experience insomnia or increased napping. It’s still unclear exactly how sleep troubles and Alzheimer’s are linked—less sleep may lead to Alzheimer’s or maybe Alzheimer’s causes the sleep issues.
- The Signs May Appear Early.
Older people who experience poor sleep are five times as likely to have early Alzheimer’s disease—even if they do not yet have memory loss. Check with a doctor if you notice that a loved one is experiencing worsened sleep or is napping more often, as it could be an opportunity to identify dementia in its beginning stages.
- Keep Active During the Day.
Due to restless sleep, people with Alzheimer's often feel exhausted during the day, especially during the late afternoon and early evening, which is known as “sundowning.” This fatigue can worsen one’s mental state and make it tempting to nap, but a midday snooze can make it even harder to sleep through the night. Encourage your loved one to remain active during the day, which will limit the chance for a nap and hopefully lead to sounder sleep come bedtime. Also, because dark surroundings can increase anxiety levels in those with Alzheimer’s, try to keep the home brightly lit during evening hours.
- Try Non-Drug Treatments First.
Before your loved one seeks out medications to improve sleep, he or she should try making lifestyle changes that encourage shuteye. A regular sleep and meal schedule can be helpful, as can avoiding stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. In addition, morning exposure to sunlight and daily exercise may help those with dementia score better sleep—just make sure that the physical activity is done at least four hours before bedtime. If these modifications aren’t improving the person’s sleep, talk to a doctor about whether sleep medications may be appropriate.