The Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention estimates that nearly 5 million people suffer from the effects of age-related dementia in the United States. With a growing elderly population, those numbers will only continue to increase. Of those 5 million people, many suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and periodic limb movements. Understanding the relationship between dementia and sleep disorders can help caregivers establish the good sleep hygiene needed to help dementia sufferers get the rest they need.
The Relationship Between Dementia and Sleep Disorders
Dementia and sleep disorders have an interesting relationship. Science continues to explore which comes first, dementia or the sleep disorder. Paradoxically, those with dementia have more sleep disturbances than their healthy peers while at the same time those who suffer from insomnia are more likely to develop some form of dementia.
Whether it’s a cause or an effect, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Sleep problems can also increase stress for the person with dementia and their caregivers, which makes dementia symptoms worse.
Changes in the Brain
As the body’s control center, any changes in the brain disturb many normal body functions and cycles. Sleep deprivation impacts the immune system, reasoning skills, and metabolism and appetite of normal adults. Those same effects are seen and magnified by dementia, wherein parts of the brain begin to deteriorate. Because, like sleep deprivation, dementia changes how the brain functions.
The brain signals the release of hormones that trigger sleepiness at night. It also helps establish healthy circadian rhythms. Many people experience a shorter sleep cycle as they age so there are already changes going on in the brain. Dementia furthers those changes which leads to insomnia and conditions like sun downing, wherein the person becomes agitated and tends to wander in the evening just when they should be settling down for the night.
Disturbed Circadian Rhythms
Circadian rhythms keep the body functioning on a regular cycle. These rhythms control everything from gene expression to body temperature. When it comes to sleep, circadian rhythms control the release of hormones like melatonin and cortisol, which stimulate sleep.
Exposure to light is one of the strongest contributors to establishing a healthy sleep cycle. With age, the eyes become less sensitive to light, which can shorten and change circadian rhythms. Those with dementia may be affected more than usual and many lead a sedentary, indoor lifestyle where exposed to less light.
Good Sleep Hygiene
You can help those with dementia by establishing good sleep hygiene. Start with a bedroom devoted solely to sleep. The room temperature should be kept cool at night and the mattress should be supportive so that discomfort doesn’t cause wakefulness. Other ways you can help establish good sleep hygiene include:
- Regular Eating and Sleeping Schedule: The body responds to a routine. A consistent eating and sleeping schedule supports healthy circadian rhythms even if the brain has a hard time responding appropriately. That means going to bed and waking at the same time and eating at regular intervals.
- Increase Exposure to Natural Light: Natural light stimulates the brain and supports healthy circadian rhythms.
- Regular Exercise: Gentle exercise wears out the body so it’s better prepared to sleep at night. A walk around the block or trip to a nature trail provides exercise and some outside time. Avoid a sedentary lifestyle and stay active as much as possible.