Dementia and sleep disorders tend to go hand in hand with a “chicken and egg” relationship. Many people with dementia experience sleep problems, but a higher percentage of those diagnosed with insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders develop dementia. While we’re still trying to understand this relationship fully, the evidence shows that those with dementia disproportionately experience a lack of sleep.
Circadian Rhythms, and the Aging Body
Circadian rhythms are 24-hour hormonal and physiological cycles the body uses to correctly time daily behaviors such as sleep. Circadian rhythm disorders with symptoms like extended sleep latency, fragmented sleep, and lower total sleep time often accompany dementia.
There are some typical aspects of aging that can cause the circadian rhythms to get out of sync. The body uses several different factors to set the circadian rhythms and time the sleep cycle correctly. One of the most influential factors is natural light.
Special cells in the eyes called ganglion cells are sensitive to and absorb the blue light that comes from the sun. These cells have a direct connection to the area of the brain that controls the circadian rhythms. As the eyes dim with age, less and less blue light makes its way to the brain. The eyes of a 10-year-old child will absorb ten times more blue light than a 95-year-old adult. Without this light, the brain may not release enough sleep hormones at the correct times, altering the sleep cycle's timing and success.
How to Get More (and Better) Sleep
Despite the sleep challenges faced by those with dementia, some behaviors and treatments can improve sleep time and quality, like:
- Keeping a Consistent Sleep Schedule:
A consistent sleep schedule allows the body to adjust to your regular patterns. At first, adjusting to a regular schedule might be difficult, especially if sleep is erratic. You may need to set several alarms to make sure that you get up at the same time every day to stay on track for a consistent bedtime.
- Increasing Light Exposure (Natural and/or Light Therapy):
Because of the importance of light to sleep timing, increasing your exposure to natural light can help reset your circadian rhythms. If getting outside is not possible, light therapy has also been shown to help stabilize the sleep cycle. Light therapy involves sitting underneath lamps with specialized light bulbs that put out a high concentration of blue light. Use of light therapy in the morning can help increase and regulate the release of sleep hormones at night.
- Exercising Regularly:
Exercise wears out both mind and body, so it’s better prepared for sleep. While your parent might not be able to pound the pavement like they did when they were younger, even light exercise can make a difference in their sleep quality. Seated exercises, a walk, or light weight training can all be effective.
Some sleep disorders will require more than behavioral modifications. Excessive snoring, daytime sleepiness, or other behaviors that disrupt life should be discussed with a physician. When healthy sleep habits are used in conjunction with CPAP machines, mouth guards, and other interventions, the chance of sleep success increases.
Sleep problems can exhaust both those with dementia and their caregivers. As you work together to find effective solutions, everyone can get better sleep.
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