Everyone forgets things sometimes, often more frequently with age. However, as someone gets older and begins to struggle with memory, they may find that memory loss is tied to a medical condition, not just normal cognitive decline. Some causes are reversible, such as mild head trauma or hypothyroidism. Others, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, bring on progressive symptoms. Only a medical professional can diagnose the issue.
Regardless of the diagnosis, sleep is important for memory care. When an older person progresses to a stage where they need residential memory care, it’s important to understand the connection between memory and sleep. Let’s take a look at that connection and how to help seniors with memory issues get adequate sleep.
How Sleep Affects Senior Health
As with memory, sleep patterns naturally change somewhat with age. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age.” It’s true that seniors’ circadian rhythms may shift so that they feel tired earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning than they used to. Yet, seniors still require around eight hours of sleep per night.
Even when getting a full eight hours, older adults tend to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep. This can mean that they wake up more often during the night and have a harder time falling back to sleep. They may also feel less rested the next day. Around 44 percent of seniors report some symptoms of insomnia several times per week.
When someone, of any age, fails to get adequate sleep, they can experience a range of side effects. Prolonged sleep deprivation increases the risk of heart disease, slows wound healing, negatively affects mood and harms memory. Many people will say, anecdotally, that they struggle to remember things when they’re tired. Scientific evidence confirms this. A 2016 research study, for example, showed that sleep deprivation leads to a loss of connectivity between neurons in the region of the brain associated with learning and memory.
Sleep Issues and Dementia: Which Comes First?
The relationship between sleep and memory flows both ways. While memory disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can lead to sleep issues, there is also some evidence that lack of sleep over the years can increase the risk of developing these conditions.
Unfortunately, memory disorders themselves may inhibit adequate quality and quantity of sleep.
The Mayo Clinic says, “Sleep disturbance may affect up to 25% of people with mild to moderate dementia and 50% of people with severe dementia.”
In Alzheimer’s disease, brain tissue is lost, causing a decline in cognitive abilities as well as disruptions to the sleep cycle. Conversely, adequate sleep helps clear amyloid plaques from the brain; these chemical “clumps” hinder communication among brain cells in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
So, lack of quality sleep may cause memory issues or memory issues may cause a lack of quality sleep. Either way, if an older adult struggles with sleep, a good first step is to pinpoint the cause.
Challenges for Older Adults with Getting Adequate Sleep
As we said, sleep patterns change with age. Sometimes, people who have never experienced trouble sleeping before will struggle in advanced age. There are many reasons, beyond the aging process itself, why seniors may face greater sleep challenges.
Some drugs used to treat dementia can cause night time stimulation and dream disturbances. Many other medications, for a variety of conditions, may stimulate the brain or the heart rate, making someone feel more awake. A doctor can give advice on potentially changing a medication, altering the time of day it is administered, or taking it with or without food as warranted for best results.
Many seniors suffer from chronic pain. If pain is costing someone sleep, they should certainly speak with a doctor about how to manage it, whether with medication or a more holistic approach. Sometimes a change as small as a different kind of pillow makes a difference.
Depression and Anxiety
Seniors can be prone to depression and anxiety, both of which can inhibit sleep. More than 2 million seniors 65 years and older suffer from depression, according to Mental Health America, and there are many causes. Additionally, medications used to treat depression and anxiety can negatively affect the quality of sleep, such as by causing nightmares or nausea. Again, a qualified healthcare provider can help to figure out the best choices.
How to Sleep Better
If you or a loved one with a memory-related illness is not getting the right quality and quantity of sleep, it is always a good idea to speak to a doctor. It may also help to follow these sleep tips:
- Keep a sleep journal to gain an accurate picture of the amount of sleep, including naps, and look for any patterns.
- Reduce potential sleep disturbances using tactics like blackout curtains or a white noise machine.
- People with dementia should avoid sedatives, which can create confusion and actually interfere with normal sleep patterns.
- Stay active by getting exercise, spending time outdoors, and socializing.
- Establish a bedtime routine with a series of calming activities done each night.
- Help the person feel safe, especially if they live in a memory care community. Let them know that their door is securely locked against intruders and that help is nearby should they need anything.
When to Seek Memory Care
If you or a senior loved one has chronic sleep issues and also suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or another cognitive impairment, it may be time to consider ongoing memory care. Other early signs that a person needs memory care may include changes in behavior such as increased confusion or agitation or unexplained sudden sadness.
Anchin Memory Care at Aviva offers private and semi-private apartments for seniors in an inviting, safe setting that’s complete with skilled nursing and other medical services. Please contact us to learn more about the Aviva community and the holistic living experience that we offer our residents.