Staying Healthy with Dementia: The Effects of Cognitive Decline on Sleep
Dementia is a complicated condition that can affect nearly every part of life. In addition to notable changes in emotional and physical well-being, sleeping often becomes difficult. Closely associated with memory loss, cognitive decline also affects mood, alertness, and awareness of time. Dementia progresses differently in each person; however, most caregivers report serious disruptions to sleep.
Unfortunately, these two issues are reciprocal. Symptoms of dementia prevent sleep and sleep deprivation exacerbates symptoms of dementia. Insomnia is common in seniors with dementia and can actually serve as an early warning sign. It’s important to note that insomnia can also be brought on by other factors, including: depression, stress, and side effects from medication. There are a lot of factors to consider, here are a few things to know about dementia and how it affects sleep health.
Dementia: An Encompassing Disorder
Dementia is a broad term that’s used to describe a number of disorders related to cognitive decline. Both progressive and degenerative, these disorders cause a gradual decline in memory, thinking, judgement, mood, and behavior. These changes often present as confusion, agitation, and anxiety which ultimately affects sleep patterns (among other things). Currently, Alzheimer’s disease affects over 5.5 million Americans and the number appears to be growing each day.
Dementia itself can be the result of a number of conditions, such as Lewy body disease, brain damage, vascular dementia, or a number of neurodegenerative disorders. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is primarily caused by a protein buildup in neutral pathways of the brain but the cause of the buildup is still unknown. Unfortunately, many forms of dementia cannot be prevented, slowed, reversed, or cured. There are a number of programs, therapies, and senior care communities that can cater to memory loss, as well as brain games and exercises to help with memory improvements.
Sleep and Dementia
Sleep and dementia have a treacherous relationship. Common symptoms of dementia, such as agitation or anxiety, prevent seniors from adequate sleep. Many struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling remotely rested. Caregivers often notice daytime sleepiness, nighttime wandering, and confusion at particular times of the day. These problems are particularly worrisome when seniors living alone can wander or fall during the night.
Sadly, dementia also further complicates diagnosis of sleep problems. Changes in behavior and nighttime wandering are symptoms that commonly occur in dementia patients; therefore, insomnia may be easy to overlook. Caregivers should be aware of excessive daytime sleepiness and trouble falling or staying asleep to better identify insomnia. Treatment for insomnia is complex as some medications interfere with other symptoms or treatments. Consult a primary care physician about your concerns and options.
Tips for a Better Sleep
The internet provides endless advice for help with sleep but not every option is ideal for dementia patients. It’s important to consider the individual as well as their progression and other conditions before trying any new approach. Seniors and caregivers have a number of choices that can help improve sleep; here are a few to consider:
- Diet. A healthy diet is an important factor in sleep hygiene. Foods high in sugar, alcohol, and caffeine interrupt sleep cycles.
- Exercise. Although physical activity is more difficult as we age, it’s essential for healthy sleep. Staying active throughout the day can prevent daytime napping and improve overall health.
- Go Outdoors. Research indicates that exposure to sunlight helps realign sleep rhythm and reduces the effects of insomnia. Exposure to bright, natural light has also shown to help dementia symptoms, making it an excellent choice.
- Create a Sleep Space. Your quality of sleep is dependent on the quality of your sleep space. Sleeping areas should be relatively dark with good ventilation, steady temperature, and minimal sound. Commit your bed to sleep only by avoid eating, watching TV, and other activities in bed.
- Commit to a Schedule. It can be hard to wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on holidays or weekends. Try setting alarms to help set a permanent sleep schedule.
- Ask Your Doctor About Medicine. Although there are a number of sleep aids on the market, each should be discussed with your doctor first. Aside from prescription options, antihistamines (i.e. Diphenhydramine) are an over-the-counter option to help you fall asleep. Seniors can also consider natural, herbal supplements such as melatonin, valerian root, or 5-HTP.
Caregivers and seniors are often unaware of the implications of sleep issues related to dementia. Although quality sleep cannot prevent or decelerate dementia symptoms, many caregivers report better mood and behavior. Improving sleep often means changes in lifestyle; caregivers should keep an eye out for changes in weight or exposure to the elements. Seniors with a history of heart problems can complicate numerous sleep treatments; take additional precautions when using sleep aids.
We would like to offer a special thanks to Tuck: A Community for Advancing Better Sleep. Tuck is an excellent resource site for any issues related to sleep and had provided essential information to help seniors and dementia patients alike gain access to better quality sleep.
The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material found on this website is intended to promote and encourage consumer understanding and should not be considered alternative or supplementary medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or physical condition, seek the advice of a licensed qualified healthcare provider. Be sure to discuss any changes or concerns with your doctor before beginning a new healthcare regimen, undergoing any procedures, or changing current healthcare plans. Seniors and Health does not claim medical representation and assumes no responsibility in the accuracy of the information available on this website.
About the Author: Victoria K. Stickley is a copywriter, editor, and senior content manager based in the Dallas area. Her graduate education in counseling and research has helped immensely in her writing as well as the care she provides for her grandparents. She currently provides support and resources to senior care websites as she learns and experiences senior care first-hand.