Find a Community

How Does Dementia Affect Sleep?

How Does Dementia Affect Sleep?

If you are the caregiver for an older adult who has dementia, you might be having difficulty getting them to sleep. Family members often say it seems like their loved one can go for days without sleeping. It makes for what experts call a “36-hour day.” It can be exhausting for the caregiver and the senior.

In this article:

While it isn’t always easy to pinpoint the cause of insomnia in a senior with dementia, there are some common issues. Here are a few to discuss with your loved one’s physician.

4 Causes of Sleep Problems in Seniors with Dementia

1. Overly busy schedule late in the day

It can be hard for people with dementia to process too much information or an overly busy environment. When a senior with dementia has an afternoon and evening schedule that is hectic, they might feel agitated and have trouble unwinding. This makes falling and staying asleep difficult.

A solution is to schedule activities and appointments early in the day. Keep the afternoon and evening quieter. Turn off the television and play soothing music instead. Take out magazines or old photos for the senior to look through. The goal should be to keep things peaceful and relaxing.

2. Sleep Apnea and other sleep disorders

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder which stops and restarts breathing during sleep. This can prevent a person’s body from getting enough oxygen and can cause snoring or gasping resulting in poor quality sleep.

According to the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute, there are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. The most common is obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when your throat muscles relax and block the airway in the throat. Central sleep apnea happens when a person’s brain stops sending the signals needed to breathe.

People who are overweight, male, or have a family history of small airways are most at risk for sleep apnea. While people with sleep apnea snore loudly, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

Share the situation with your loved one’s doctor to be sure there isn’t another problem preventing them from sleeping. Sometimes medical issues are responsible for sleep difficulties. It could be sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless leg syndrome.

Your physician might be able to order an in-home sleep study in lieu of a clinic-based test. That eliminates concerns about an adult who has a memory impairment spending the night in a strange environment.

3. Not having a routine

Adults with a memory impairment often do better when their days are structured and their routine stays the same. Lifestyle programs like Five Star Senior Living’s Bridge to Rediscovery establish set routines for memory care residents like activities, meals times, and hydration breaks. Researchers think having a set routine helps because it requires less short-term memory. For adults with memory loss, short-term memory is typically impacted early in the disease progression.

4. Other lifestyle and environmental issues

If none of the tips listed above seem to help, there are a few more things to consider:

  • Is their bedroom too hot?
  • Is their bed uncomfortable?
  • Is a medication or side effect causing sleeplessness?
  • Do they have undiagnosed chronic or acute pain?
  • Are they consuming too much caffeine, especially later in the day?

Dementia and Sleeping A Lot

Alternatively some people with dementia sleep a lot. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, sleeping more is a common occurrence for people with later-stage dementia. As the disease progresses the person’s brain weakens. People with dementia become exhausted when trying to communicate, eat, or understand their surroundings. Excessive sleep can be a side effect of some medication as well. It’s important to monitor a person with dementia if they are sleeping a lot to prevent any physical health problems.

Sleep Positions and Dementia

Choosing the right sleep position isn’t just about comfort; it can also have significant implications for a person’s health. Sleeping on your side is generally considered the best position for most people because it can alleviate sleep apnea and acid reflux. One study found some evidence that sleeping in specific positions “could influence the clearance of neurotoxic proteins from the brain.”

During the day, our brains accumulate toxic byproducts in the central nervous system. These are flushed away during sleep via cerebrospinal fluid. That brain waste includes beta amyloid, which is a substance found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. A study done at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) found that the natural waste clearing system in the brain works best when people sleep on their side.

Memory Care at Five Star Senior Living

If you’ve concluded that your loved one’s quality of life would be better in a memory care community, we hope you will consider Five Star Senior Living. Our Montessori-based Bridge to Rediscovery Alzheimer’s and dementia care program provides personalized memory care based on your loved one’s specific abilities, preferences, and passions. Find a memory care community near you to learn more about how a Five Star can help your loved one with dementia rediscover a meaningful life full of joy and purpose.

Subscribe to the Five Star Blog

Don't miss out on the latest tips, research and stories from Five Star to help you and your
family navigate aging well.