It’s National Sleep Awareness Week, and there’s no better time to remind ourselves of how critical sleep is for physical, mental and emotional health — not just for seniors but for caregivers, too.Hard Facts About Sleep Problems in the Elderly

Sleep disorders are a significant source of concern — especially in the geriatric population. Changes in sleep patterns are part of the normal aging process, but sleep disorders have been implicated with increased mortality, and side effects such as dementia, cognitive impairment and falls. This week, the National Sleep Foundation urges everyone to celebrate sleep and its health benefits for National Sleep Awareness Week. We’ve put together an overview of why sleep is critical for senior health, how conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease can change sleep patterns, and what caregivers can do to make sure they get enough rest.

Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia Increase Dementia Risk

We all know a good night’s sleep is the key to feeling energetic and clear-headed the next day, but sleeping soundly is also linked to a lower risk of cognitive impairment later in life. Unfortunately, older adults are more likely to have health issues that disturb their sleep, such as insomnia or sleep apnea. A 2011 study at the University of California, San Francisco, showed a clear association between sleep-disordered breathing in older women and the risk of cognitive impairment.

“Those who developed disruptions of their circadian rhythm were also at increased risk,” reports NPR. “So were those who awoke throughout the night, tossing and turning.”

For seniors who are under some form of psychological stress, this link may be even stronger. Not only does stress affect our sleep patterns, stress in itself has been associated with dementia risk. A study in 2010 found a link between stress in middle-aged women and the later development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe, who co-authored the UCSF study, advises older adults to get regularly screened for sleep problems, so that any issues can be caught early and treated before they lead to significant cognitive impairment.

Alzheimer’s, Sleep Problems and Sundowning

Sleep problems are even more pronounced in older adults with Alzheimer’s. Brain changes associated with the disease are the underlying cause of issues such as difficulty sleeping, nighttime wandering, daytime napping, shifts in the sleep/wake cycle, and late-afternoon/early-evening agitation referred to as “sundowning.”

Aging sometimes causes a natural disruption of Circadian rhythms — our daily cycles of waking, sleeping, body temperature, and metabolism — a disruption which is often significantly worse in those with Alzheimer’s, reports the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association notes that “in late stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals spend about 40% of their time in bed at night awake and a significant part of their daytime sleeping.” Sleep disruptions, in turn, are one of the factors that contribute to sundowning behavior.

If your loved one shows increased mood swings, confusion, memory loss, or even anger as the day winds down, there are several coping strategies caregivers can use to improve sleep for seniors, including establishing a daytime routine that includes some degree of physical activity.

Caregivers Need Sleep, Too

Study after study has shown that caregivers need a good night’s sleep just as much as their loved ones do. According to a report from the National Alliance for Caregiving, stress and depression are common in caregivers, and 87% of those surveyed reported problems with sleep and energy levels. Many caregivers said that their sleep was interrupted during the night, sometimes several times a night, while others said it was the stress of their responsibilities keeping them awake.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that “sleep problems among caregivers increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s patients being cared for in an institutional facility,” as well as taking its toll on the health of the caregiver. It’s therefore especially important for caregivers to care for themselves as much as possible, adopting healthy day-to-day habits as well as taking longer breaks as needed, such as those provided by respite care or “dementia camp.”

Sharing your caregiving experiences can be a helpful coping strategy. We invite you to leave comments and share any tips you’ve found to be particularly useful in encouraging your senior loved ones — and yourselves — to sleep better.

-An article by Sarah J. Stevenson

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