Both the beginning and end of DST are tough changes on even the healthiest among us. For someone like me who has had hardwired sleep challenges all my life, the beginning of DST is particularly hard for me for about a week until my body and brain adjust to the change. Continue reading
In this eighth installment of brief excerpts from each chapter in the book You Oughta Know: Acknowledging, Recognizing, and Responding to the Steps in the Journey Through Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we look at the seventh step in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
This post includes an excerpt from chapter 7, which provides a comprehensive look at how to acknowledge, recognize, and respond to the seventh step in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease: sleep changes and disruptions.
This chapter shows that changes to sleep patterns and sleep disturbances, which includes sundowning, are all part of the seventh step in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s disease.
This chapter also discusses how this step impacts our loved ones and us as caregivers and the practical, real-time, and loving ways we as caregivers should respond and help our loved ones walk through this step in the journey.
This series begins with the forward to the book and an explanation of why I wrote this book and why you should read it.
The steps in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are presented sequentially in the order in which they actually appear in the course of these neurological diseases.
There are no other books that literally walk through each step in sequential order as they emerge in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Additionally, there is no other book that discusses:
- The process we as caregivers acknowledge each new step – there is an acceptance period that we have to go through
- The process we use to guide ourselves and our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease through the recognition phase of each step
- The concrete, loving, and practical information on how we should respond and how we can help guide our loved ones’ responses
These are the things that make You Oughta Know: Acknowledging, Recognizing, and Responding to the Steps in the Journey Through Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease unique and stand alone in the plethora of books about dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Excerpt “Chapter 7: ‘Don’t Know If It’s Day Or Night’”
“Changes and disruptions in sleep are the next step in the journey our loved ones go through with dementias and Azheimer’s Disease. Included in this step is a phenomenon called sundowning, which we’ll explain the logic and science behind.
But first we need to talk about the science of sleep. All humans have a 24-hour internal clock that is known as our circadian clock (the term circadian rhythm refers to any biological process that completes a 24-hour cycle).
This clock, shown below, is a complex and coordinated system of neurology, hormones, environmental factors, and routines that are established from the time we are born.
Everyone’s circadian clock is unique, but each follows the general pattern shown above. In fact, the clock shown above is the ideal and the circadian clock that humans basically followed until the Industrial Revolution took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Since the full transition into the Industrial Revolution, human life and the adherence to this natural circadian clock has been altered and challenged because one of the side-effects of the Industrial Revolution was the development of artificial lighting (gas in the 19th century and electricity in the 20th century), which enabled lighting to be available 24 hours a day.
This was the byproduct of greed that served the captains of industry well (instead of limiting work hours to daylight hours only, artificial lighting enabled factories, foundries, mining operations, etc. to operate on a 24/7 schedule), but the human race definitely got the short end of the stick here.
Because the body is designed genetically, neurologically, hormonally, and environmentally to function in sync with the 24-hour circadian clock shown above, disrupted sleep and sleep deprivation has a chaotic effect on the body, even in otherwise-healthy people.
Time and again, science and medicine have shown a significant increase in accidents and serious injuries among shift workers who work at night. This includes not only production workers, but also professionals such as medical personnel. There is also a considerable amount of evidence that shows night shift workers are much likely to be injured or killed in driving accidents because they have a higher incidence of falling asleep behind the wheel going to and from work.
The most disruptive shift to the human body is the graveyard shift (usually 11 pm to 7 am). By the time these workers start their shift, the body is fully prepared (the hormone melatonin relaxes the body and mind for sleep beginning around 9 pm) to sleep. Forcing the body to do the complete opposite of what is it naturally designed to do is often counterproductive and very destructive to human health.”
Today’s post will discuss how dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease affect circadian rhythms and sleep, as well as some tips to help manage sleep disruptions effectively.
There are a lot of factors that make up our sleep behavior. I first want to discuss the biology of sleep and how, even if there are no other sleep disorders, dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease disrupt the biological sleep cycle.
As people age, this clock changes so that they normally tend to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea are more common in older people as well. But their circadian rhythms are still primarily based on light (the more light, the more wakefulness; the less light, the more sleepiness) and time of day.
However, in our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, circadian rhythms go out the window because the diseases impair the brain’s ability to tell time and to distinguish between light and dark as indicators of when to sleep and when to awaken. It is sometimes helpful, in the early stages, to get a 24-hour clock to help our loved ones distinguish between A.M. hours and P.M. hours, but eventually that will be a casualty of the diseases.
The most common circadian rhythm disorder associated with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is a phenomenon known as “sundowning.” It occurs in the late afternoon and early evening.
It is characterized by speech and behavior repetition, constant pacing , excessive restlessness, wandering, disorientation to time and place, and agitation or aggression towards others.
Wandering is especially dangerous because if our loved ones get outside, they can walk long distances with limited vision because of the sun going down, sometimes on crowded roadways, and are susceptible to being the victims of crime and vehicular death.
One probable cause of sundowning is that there is damage to the part of the brain that produces melatonin (the sleep hormone) and the reduced production causes an irregular sleep-wake rhythm.
Another theory on the cause of sundowning is related to the energy levels of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease . At the end of the day they are likely tired from the day’s activities.
This can aggravate the symptoms of the diseases, making them more anxious and stressed. Before the onset of these diseases, this time of day would have typically been the busiest for them. They would be getting home from work, getting ready for dinner, doing household chores, and going to bed. Now that they’re unable to do those things, they have little to do at a time that was the busiest of the day for them.
The most common sleep disorder that occurs with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is an irregular sleep-wake rhythm. You can see in the graph above how disruptive this rhythm is and why our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s can be so tired, in general, all the time.
However, I believe the most damaging effect of this sleep pattern is that it actually prevents the restorative/repair functions that occur during a normal sleep rhythm, which exacerbates the neurological damage that dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease do to the brain. In short, this sleep pattern makes the diseases worse.
The most effective – and safe – way to try to minimize an irregular sleep-wake rhythm is to add melatonin to nighttime medications. As I’ve said before, up to 12 mg of melatonin is considered safe, but start with a low dose (3 mg or 5 mg) and give it time to see if that gives our loved ones more continuous and restful sleep. The goal is to keep them asleep at night and keep them awake during the day. Too much melatonin can have them sleeping all the time.
I would also suggest keeping our loved ones active and busy – as they are able – during the day (I will talk more about this in another post, but will briefly touch on it here). Up until the last week and a half of my mom’s life, when she’d had the major heart attack and just couldn’t do much with me, I had her help me with the household chores that she could like making the bed, folding laundry, preparing meals, and helping me with the dishes.
I didn’t care whether it was perfect or not (initially a big challenge to my normal OCD about those kinds of things), but I found that the more she did, the better she felt and the better she slept.
There is a sleep disorder that is specific to Lewy Body dementia and is one of the primary symptoms of that form of dementia. It is called R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder.
R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder is impossible to miss. Anytime a sufferer is asleep, they are in motion acting out their dreams and, at least in my mom’s case, having sometimes understandable and sometimes not in-depth conversations. It is also characterized by “picking” at clothing or bedclothes while asleep.
On the one hand, at least for me, it was quite fascinating to watch Mom dream and act out her dreams. Apparently – and I’ve seen this with other Lewy Body dementia sufferers, so it must be common for all of us to dream about – she dreamed quite often about food, because she’d often make the motion of either eating with a utensil or with her hands to her mouth. That was usually when she was napping during the day.
Most of her conversations occurred at night, although occasionally she’d say a line or two during a daytime nap. And they’d last all night sometimes.
Her nightime dreams also included a lot of moving around and possibly a version of restless legs syndrome (not uncommon for R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder).
While I know this had a detrimental effect on her quality of sleep, it was disruptive for me too. I have always been a light sleeper and have had my own issues all my life with not sleeping much (and sometimes not sleeping at all for a day or two) and not getting quality sleep (waking up a lot or being wide awake in the early morning hours and not being able to go back to sleep for an hour or two). With Mom talking and moving around all night, it made sleep that much more difficult for me.
An increase in melatonin helped with this as well. I bumped her up to 7 mg each night (she was at 5 mg before) and it was just enough to keep most of the symptoms at bay. There were still some nights when it was noticeable, but the worst of the symptoms seemed to be alleviated. And because she slept better, she felt better and did better during the daytime.
I hope this brief overview helps. If you have any questions or any topics you would like to see discussed here, leave me a comment or email me at goinggentleintothatgoodnight.com. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to try to find it.
You’re not alone and my intent and goal is to keep reminding you of that and help you as much as I am able.
Today’s post will provide an overview look at Alzheimer’s Disease. As I’ve stated before, Alzheimer’s Disease is a specific type of brain deterioration disease (dementia) that differs from other dementias.
While Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia, not all dementias are Alzheimer’s Disease. “Alzheimer’s Disease” has become the catch-phrase for all neurological degeneration among the general population and that imprecision leads to a lack of understanding of the complexities of these diseases, especially when several types of dementia are present concurrently.
Dementias affect specific areas of the internal structure of the brain and are caused by specific abnormal occurrences within those areas. We’ve looked at vascular (multi-infarct) dementia, which is a result of small vessel ischemia within the blood vessels in the brain, and Lewy Body dementia, which occurs when abnormal proteins are deposited in the cortex of the brain.
Alzheimer’s Disease affects the whole brain, essentially eroding and diminishing, through the resulting atrophy, the whole structure of the brain. The two crucial components in Alzheimer’s Disease are the overabundant presence of plaques (beta-amyloid protein deposit fragments that accumulate in the spaces between neurons) and tangles (twisted fibers of disintegrating tau proteins that accumulate within neurons). Watch this short video to see how these plaques and tangles form and how they lead to neuron death.
While plaques and tangles, which lead to neuron death (the nerve cells get deprived of what they need to survive and be healthy), are part of the aging process, in our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease, there are so many of them that the brain slowly dies from the inside out.
It is clear from the picture above exactly why Alzheimer’s Disease is a systemic disease, because all areas of the brain are eventually impacted.
However, as Alzheimer’s Disease begins, the first area of the brain affected is the temporal lobe, which is, in part, responsible for long and short-term memory, and persistent short-term memory loss is usually one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease to appear.
The second area of the brain to be affected is generally the frontal lobe, which handles information processing and decision-making. The last part of the brain to be affected is usually the parietal lobe, which is the area of the brain responsible for language and speech.
Alzheimer’s Disease has distinct stages in which symptoms materialize. The stages are (this lists the three main stages, but there is also a more comprehensive seven-stage breakdown, known as the Global Deterioration Scale or the Reisberg Scale):
- Stage 1 – Mild – Recurring short-term memory loss, especially of recent conversations and events. Repetitive questions and some trouble with expressing and understanding language. Possible mild coordination problems with writing and using objects. May have mood swings. Need reminders for some daily activities, and may begin have difficulty driving.
- Stage 2 – Moderate/Middle – Problems are evident. Continual memory loss, which may include forgetting personal history and the inability to recognize friends and family. Rambling speech. Unusual reasoning. More confusion about current events, time, and place. Tends to get lost in familiar settings. Experiences sleep issues (including sundowning). More pervasive changes in mood and behavior, especially when experiencing stress and change. May experience delusions, aggression, and uninhibited behavior. Mobility and coordination may be affected. Need set structure, reminders, and assistance with daily living.
- Stage 3 – Severe/Late – Confused about past and present. Loses all ability to remember, communicate, or process information. Generally incapacitated with severe to total loss of verbal skills. Unable to care for self. Often features urinary and bowel incontinence. Can exhibit extreme mood disturbances, extreme behavior, and delirium. Problems with swallowing occur in this stage as well.
It’s important to remember that not all our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease – especially if there are other dementias present – will go through every aspect of each stage nor through all the stages before they die. That’s one of the real difficulties with “mixed-dementia” diagnoses, as these are called, because it’s difficult to tell which brain disease is causing which problems and that makes them more difficult to manage symptom-wise.
The medications generally prescribed for Alzheimer’s Disease are Aricept (mild to moderate stages), Namenda (moderate stage), and Excelon (mild to moderate). All three of these medications are cognitive enhancers. It’s not unusual to have more than one of these medications prescribed at a time.
I will talk specifically about sleep disturbances in dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, including sundowning, in another post, but I will caution all caregivers to stay away from both non-prescription sleep medications like Tylenol PM, Advil PM, and ZZZQuil and prescription sleep medications like Lunesta and Ambien (all of these can actually make the symptoms worse and definitely make injury and/or death from a fall more likely).
Melatonin is naturally-occurring sleep hormone in humans. As people age, there is less melatonin produced. That’s why, in general, most older people who have never had sleep disorders eventually and gradually sleep less than their younger counterparts. However, the brain damage that dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease cause exacerbates this lack of melatonin.
So, it’s worth it to try a therapeutic dose (up to 20 mg per night is considered to be safe) of Melatonin. It is available over-the-counter at both brick-and-mortar and online drug stores.
Start with a 3 mg dose and add slowly. With my mom, a 5 mg dose provided enough for her to sleep as best as she could through the night. Do not overdose because this will disrupt the circadian rhythm further by producing late sleeping and grogginess during the day.
Usually our loved ones with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s Disease, even though these diseases are fatal (when the brain’s dead, you’re dead), don’t die from them specifically.
They die either from a concurrent health problem (in my mom’s case, it was congestive heart failure which lead to a major heart attack, a minimal recovery, and then her death twelve days later) or from complications that arise from the brain degeneration caused by the dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease.
The two most common causes of death in Alzheimer’s Disease are pneumonia (the brain controls swallowing, and once that becomes compromised, aspiration of food into the lungs is likely and leads to an infection) and fatal trauma to the head from falls.