Dementia and sleep problems often go hand in hand. The connection between dementia and sleep is a common source of stress for family caregivers. When your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia doesn’t sleep well, you probably don’t get enough sleep either.
Read on to understand the causes of sleep problems in people with dementia and get tips for better sleep.
Sleep changes are common in older adults with and without dementia. Many seniors experience changes in the quality of their sleep, the number of hours they sleep, and how much time they spend awake at night. In fact, older adults’ total sleep time decreases by about 30 minutes per decade starting in middle age.
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Sleep problems are even more common in people with dementia. The type and severity of sleep disturbances may vary depending on the cause of your loved one’s dementia and the stage of their disease. Sleep problems associated with dementia tend to get worse as the disease progresses.
Your loved one with dementia may experience the following sleep problems:
Some people with dementia sleep excessively during the daytime. They may feel like they can’t stay awake, and they may take long naps that interfere with nighttime sleep and overall quality of life.
Excessive daytime sleepiness is more common in people with Parkinson’s disease dementia or Lewy body dementia than in those with Alzheimer’s. Some factors that may contribute to excessive daytime sleepiness include:
Researchers and doctors don’t understand exactly why dementia affects sleep, but up to 70% of people with cognitive impairment have sleep disturbances, according to a review of studies on disturbed sleep and dementia. Changes in the brain associated with dementia seem to affect the structure of sleep and the circadian rhythm, which helps regulate the physical, mental, and behavioral changes the body goes through in 24 hours.
Other factors that may contribute to poor sleep in dementia include:
Sleep problems in people with dementia often have multiple causes. Talk to the doctor about your loved one’s specific symptoms. The doctor may have questions about your parent’s sleep habits, medications, diet, and any other health conditions to diagnose what’s disrupting their sleep.
If you’re caring for a family member with dementia, improving sleep is probably a priority. Adequate rest can improve your loved one’s mood, health, and quality of life — and your own. Here’s how you can help your family member with dementia get a better night’s sleep.
In some cases, the doctor may prescribe medications to help your loved one sleep. However, older adults with cognitive impairment are more likely to experience side effects from sleep-inducing drugs, so those medications aren’t usually recommended for long-term use.
Some studies show melatonin may improve sleep in people with mild to moderate dementia. It may also help reduce agitation and confusion late in the day. Check with your loved one’s doctor before starting any over-the-counter supplements or sleep aids.
What if lifestyle and environmental changes don’t help? How do you keep dementia patients in bed at night?
As dementia progresses, sleep problems along with other difficult dementia symptoms tend to get worse. This may be a good time to evaluate whether you need additional support to help ensure your loved one’s health and safety and your own. Learning what to expect at each stage of dementia can help you plan for adequate care.
Here’s what you should know when caring for someone with dementia and sleep problems:
Neikrug AB, Ancoli-Israel S. “Sleep-wake disturbances and sleep disorders in patients with dementia.”
SleepFoundation.org. “Alzheimer’s disease and sleep.”
National Institute on Aging. “6 tips for managing sleep problems in Alzheimer’s.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/6-tips-managing-sleep-problems-alzheimers.
Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.