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Dementia-Related Sleep Disturbances and How to Help Seniors Improve Their Sleep

Sleep disturbances are common for those with dementia. The changes in the brain caused by dementia often affect the body’s circadian rhythms, which means many seniors have to focus on restoring these rhythms to get a good night’s rest.
 
Dementia and Circadian Rhythms
The circadian rhythms are all the physical, mental, and behavior changes the body follows on a regular daily cycle. Individual cells follow circadian rhythms as directed by the brain. These rhythms regulate the sleep cycle, body temperature, hormone release, and even gene expression.
 
Some of the changes inherent in aging can get in the way of the body’s natural rhythms. The eyes, for example, begin to narrow and the lens yellows, which lets in less natural light. Natural light enters the eye and signals the brain when it’s time to stay awake or go to sleep. Without a way to accept and send these light-induced signal, the body begins to stray from its natural cycles. As the body gets less light, sleep disturbances may show up as:
· Insomnia - trouble falling and staying asleep
· Daytime sleepiness from inadequate sleep at night
· Sleep apnea
· Restless leg syndrome
· Night terrors or nighttime hallucinations
 
Supporting the circadian rhythms helps the body get enough rest and fight against some of the discomforts of dementia.
 
Developing Good Sleep Hygiene
Seniors with dementia often benefit from a regular, daily routine that supports good sleep at night. Remember that activities and any food consumed throughout the day will affect the ability to fall asleep. A comfortable room with a supportive mattress and pillow also play a role in waking refreshed.
· Regular Exercise: Regular exercise helps to wear out the body, so it’s tired at night. Those who find themselves homebound might want to start with a walk around the block or exercises that can be done while sitting in a chair. Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle by remaining active can also help at night.
· Increased Exposure to Sunlight: Increased exposure to sunlight can help make up for the loss of eyesight that contributes to circadian rhythm disturbances. Sitting near a window or on a porch or patio can also offer good exposure. Some seniors may benefit from bright light therapy, which uses artificial wide-spectrum bulbs to simulate sunlight, in the morning to help increase daily exposure.
· Develop a Bedtime Routine: A consistent bedtime routine can be used to send cues to the brain, so it knows when to start shutting down. Performing the same actions in the same order each night can help bring familiarity and comfort in the evening when many with dementia experience sundowning, a generally confusing and frightening time. A bedtime routine can consist of anything that helps to relax the body. Even performing actions in the same order, like putting on pajamas, followed by putting on slippers, and brushing teeth can help send the right signals.
· Eat Right and Avoid Stimulants: A healthy diet always contributes to good health. In the evening, avoid heavy meals or alcohol that can interfere with sleep. Stimulants like caffeine should not be drunk within four hours of bedtime.
 
Amy Highland is a sleep expert at SleepHelp.org. Her preferred research topics are health and wellness, so Amy's a regular reader of Scientific American and Nature.