Does Alzheimer’s disease cause disruptive sleep patterns?

Yes, the sleep/wake cycle of the affected individual becomes more disturbed as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. Some people may sleep for prolonged periods during the day and night, and others may wake often during the night and become more confused.

The amount of sleep disruption usually depends on the stage of his/her disease. In the early stages, individuals may sleep more often and wake up very confused. As the disease progresses, however, individuals tend to experience more “sleepless” nights, awaking frequently at night and wandering.

Circadian rhythms — daily cycling of body temperature, sleep, wakefulness and metabolism — are often disrupted in older adults. This disruption worsens in the person with Alzheimer’s as they lose the ability to sleep or keep alert as the disease progresses. Common factors for the disruption of sleep patterns could be that the individual has had too much sleep during the day, goes to bed too early, is experiencing physical pain, restlessness or a reaction to medication (especially if Aricept is taken at night).

Sleeplessness on the part of the individual with Alzheimer’s can take its toll on the caregiver. Researchers have found an increased risk of heart disease for elderly caregivers. Additionally, agitation and sleep problems by Alzheimer’s patients result in severe stress for caregivers and are among the top reasons caregivers transition their loved ones to nursing home settings.

Coping with disruptive sleep patterns is daunting. Caregivers should try creating a safe sleeping environment, using subtle lighting, soft music and an area away for external stimulation. A structured routine should be maintained, if at all possible, with regular sleep/wake schedules. And, the person with Alzheimer’s should be kept active during the day, avoiding long naps or sitting idle in a chair.

Lack of sleep can cause extreme agitation in individuals with Alzheimer’s. Develop a bedtime ritual that includes milk or a milk product like ice cream. Mild analgesics like Tylenol can be given, under doctor supervision, but avoid the over-the-counter sleep medications (any of the OTC medications with “PM” attached to them) as these medications worsen confusion. If sleep patterns are consistently troublesome, contact your physician.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494, advice@alzbr.org, or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.