Alzheimer's and Sleep: How Alzheimer's Can Alter the Sleep Cycle
Alzheimer’s disease can grow gradually, and for many people, major trouble only comes in the late stages. However, lots of lifestyle and personality changes can pop up earlier in the disease, and these can cause a considerable amount of worry, uncertainty, and challenges in the daily routine.
Sleep trouble is extremely common with Alzheimer’s disease, but the amount and severity of sleep disruption can differ quite a bit. While insomnia and restlessness is expected, some phases can bring the very opposite. Learn why sleep can increase with Alzheimer’s disease, what it means, and how to handle the change.
Common Changes in Sleep Patterns
It’s difficult to predict exactly how Alzheimer’s disease will affect every patient, but there are a few patterns to watch for in relation to sleep. In fact, changes in the sleep/wake cycle can be among the earliest warning signs that something isn’t right.
Many Alzheimer’s patients experience:
- Trouble staying asleep. Trouble falling asleep, waking up often, and dozing in and out of sleep are common.
- Sundowning. Restlessness in the late afternoon and evening hours. The setting sun can cause agitation, and some people will become irritated as they pace nervously and resist sleep.
- Sleeping for long stretches. You might notice your loved one begins to nod off more during the day, and is ready to hit the hay long before their usual bedtime. Sleeping for 10 to 12 hours at a time isn’t unheard of.
In general, the types of sleep disruptions change as Alzheimer’s progresses. The early stages usually bring more sleep: longer stretches of shuteye, more naps, or nearly constant drowsiness. In later stages, many people will want to sleep during the day and stay awake through the night.
Why the Duration and Frequency of Sleep Can Increase
Experts are still not certain how and why sleep disorders develop during the course of Alzheimer’s, but it’s natural to assume the physical changes taking place in the brain will interrupt normal patterns of consciousness.
In fact, there are a few reasons why an Alzheimer’s patient may begin to sleep more.
Alzheimer's Impacts the Sleep Center of the Brain
As Alzheimer’s progresses, brain cells are lost and neurological connections falter in several areas of the brain. When the disease spreads to the middle — where the control center for sleep is located — waking and sleeping patterns can become irregular and unpredictable.
Medications Can Have Sleepy Side Effects
Alzheimer’s cannot be cured with medication, but the right drugs can help slow down the disease. However, many medications are known to interfere with sleep — some of them will keep you up, while others can make you very drowsy.
Thinking Is Exhausting
You might not realize it, but thinking and conversing is actually quite taxing for your brain. For those with dementia, when the network of brain cells is beginning to degrade, calling on executive regions to work harder is not so straightforward.
They will have to put forth extra effort to communicate well. Although thinking might not drain the brain’s energy in the same way that physical exercise fatigues the muscles, there is plenty of evidence to show that too much brainwork makes you weary.
Go With the Flow or Stick to a Sleep Schedule?
Most experts recommend Alzheimer’s patients keep a very regular schedule: wake up, eat, and go to bed at the same time each day. The more regular your 24-hour schedule, the easier it is to measure food intake and sleep, plus the more familiar (and less confusing) it will be for anyone with memory loss or comprehension problems.