Why Dementia Can Cause Sleep Disturbances

Dementia–the slow loss of the ability to remember, solve problems, and do higher reasoning–affects millions of people in the United States. It encompasses many disorders and diagnosis, though one common symptom of those with dementia is sleep disturbance.

How Sleep Sleep Disturbances Manifest in Dementia

Nearly one quarter to one-half of all adults with dementia experience sleep disturbances. Those disturbances manifest themselves in a number of different ways including:

  • excessive daytime napping
  • day-night sleep reversal
  • decrease in slow wave sleep
  • decrease in rapid eye movement sleep

Why are Sleep Disturbances so Common?

Dementia usually strikes in adults over the age of 60, which is also the age when normal sleep disturbances start to increase. Though there is no one cause there are elements of dementia that contribute to sleep problems.

As the sun goes down, many dementia sufferers begin to experience “sundowning”, a term used to describe an increase in restlessness, agitation, and general distress. It could be attributed to a lack of sleep, making it more difficult to control emotions as shadows and darkness trigger anxiety.

In certain types of dementia like Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease, sleep problems are even more common because of how the diseases affect the brain. With these two particular diseases, there is an increase in restless leg syndrome and shaking of the limbs that interferes with the ability to fall asleep.

Yet other types of dementia are treated with medications that can interfere with sleep causing vivid dreams or even nightmares. And lastly, pain can be a powerful source of restlessness. Pain from disease combined with that of an aging body contributes to overall lack of sleep.

Developing Good Sleep Hygiene Can Help

As dementia progresses, so too can the sleep deprivation. But, developing good sleep hygiene is a good first step towards battling sleep problems whether they are caused by dementia or aging. Sleep hygiene involves the practices that contribute to restful sleep. They start with your sleeping environment:

  • Cool temperatures: Optimum sleeping temperatures range from 68-72 degrees, though some people are more comfortable at lower temperatures.
  • Dark or dim conditions: Light triggers an awake response while darkness tells the body it’s time to sleep. Keeping the bedroom dark can help send the right signals to your mind and body at the right time.
  • Quiet: Excessive noise can prevent falling into a deep sleep. If silence doesn’t work or isn’t possible, white noise can block out quiet sounds and is predictable enough to help the brain quiet itself.

With the right environment in place, it’s time to start looking at other factors that might be contributing to sleeplessness. A mattress with bumps and valleys can contribute to discomfort as well as tossing and turning. Look for a supportive mattress that meets personal comfort needs. That may include finding one that works for a certain sleeping position–side, back, stomach–or a foam mattress.

Establishing a regular bedtime routine can also help, including going to bed at the same time every night. It not only helps the body adapt to a regular sleep schedule but can create a sense of familiarity for someone suffering from dementia. Though the causes are varied, there are actionable steps that when taken can help with the dementia-related sleep disturbances.