Is Insomnia in the Elderly a Sign of Oncoming Alzheimer’s Disease?

If you are living with a senior, you must have heard them complain about how little sleep they get at night. Some seniors make the situation worse by sleeping in the day which prevents them from falling asleep the same night. In contrast, some seniors refrain from sleeping during the day only to realize that they can’t sleep at night as well. Such seniors are forced to function with just 3 or 4 hours of sleep every night.

Though sleep deprivation is common at all stages of life, lack of sleep in the seniors might be a reason to worry. Research has discovered that not being able to sleep at night and sleeping during the day might be early warning signs of the deadly Alzheimer’s disease

The Study

The study also found that seniors who don’t have any signs of cognitive impairment and who have a bad sleep pattern are more likely to be found with deposits of amyloid proteins in their brains. These deposits often develop for years before a person notices thinking problems or memory loss symptoms in a senior.

This research was published in JAMA Neurology and had participants who had a simple sleep pattern, i.e., they slept soundly at nighttime and stayed awake during daytime. The study found that the participants who had a sound sleeping pattern were less likely to have deposits of amyloid proteins in the brain which means that they were less likely to be victims of Alzheimer’s disease.

Unfortunately, the research is not very clear on whether the unsteady sleep patterns in seniors is a sign of Alzheimer or whether it is contributing to the development of this disorder.

In case messy sleep patterns in seniors are a sign of Alzheimer, it would be a good thing because it will help in detecting the disorder faster. Until now, the disorder can be found only when the senior undergoes sophisticated brain imaging, and the experts see the plaque deposits in the report.

If messy sleep patterns in seniors are a sign, researchers or medical professionals can track the sleep with the help of a wearable device (such as a sleep monitor by Halo Healthcare). It might help them to find seniors eligible for Alzheimer’s studies in the future and they might also know which seniors can benefit from early efforts to beat dementia.

In contrast, if the messy sleep cycle of a senior is proven to be helpful in getting Alzheimer’s a foothold, this can be even better as the seniors who have bad sleep cycles will be given counselling and other support to improve the sleep pattern and quality. This support might be vital in preventing or at least postponing the progression of a senior towards dementia.

What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Though the study has found out that disturbed sleep patterns of seniors might be associated with Alzheimer’s, the co-author of the study, Dr. Erik S. Musiek, a Neurologist of the Washington University says that seniors should not be scared that the will have Alzheimer’s if they wake up often at night.

What seniors need to realize is that some sleep changes are obvious and expected as you age. The best thing you can do is to seek help regarding messy sleep patterns and try to improve the situation.

The Subjects

The subjects of the study were 189 people who were near the average age of 67 in 2010 to 2012. The subjects were asked to wear an activity monitor for 7 – 14 days. It detected when a subject slept, for how long he/she slept, how much he/she awakened at night and how much he/she napped during the day.

At the time of the enrollment, all subjects were cognitively healthy and had no memory issues or mental impairment. About 142 of them underwent a PET scan to detect the presence of amyloid deposits. Around 26 subjects had the deposits while 116 didn’t.

The Recommendations

Seniors or caregivers of seniors who are reading this and are scared that they might have dementia should follow a few practices to help sleep better at night. Some of them are mentioned right here.

  • Do not use any electronic devices at night and don’t watch TV (About 70 percent of Canadians do it)
  • Make sure that you sleep in a dark room where the light cannot intrude.
  • Get up in the morning, get some morning light, be active and eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Being active throughout the day and doing a few exercises can also help but make sure that you do only those exercise that your body can bear.
  • You can also try some tips to calm your body and mind to get a good night’s sleep. For instance, drinking green tea or doing some yoga or meditation.
  • If these tricks don’t work, talk to a sleep specialist.