The Effects of Dementia on Your Sleep Cycle

Author: Maine Veterans' Homes
Posted: August 23, 2018
Category: Dementia and Memory Care
Ellie Porter Managing Editor |

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 fully understand this relationship, the evidence shows that those with dementia disproportionately suffer from a lack of sleep.

Dementia, 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 normal aspects of aging that can cause the circadian rhythms to get out of sync. The body uses a number of different factors to correctly set the circadian rhythms and time the sleep cycle. 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 10 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 timing and success of the sleep cycle.

How to Get More (and Better) Sleep

Despite the sleep challenges faced by those with dementia, there are behaviors and treatments that 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 a possibility, 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 you might not be able to pound the pavement like you did when you were younger, even light exercise can make a difference to your 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, mouthguards, 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.