Ellie Porter Managing Editor | SleepHelp.org
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:
Increasing Light Exposure (Natural and/or Light Therapy):
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.