Alzheimer’s and Sleep Problems: Insomnia, Oversleeping, Restlessness and Treatments

Last Updated: June 09, 2023


Bad sleep at night is often associated with more difficult days. Anxiety and aggravation increase. And if a person naps while the sun’s up to account for a bad night, the result is sleeplessness after sunset and the terrible cycle beginning anew. Sleep is yet another complicated consideration for caregivers of loved ones with dementia. What can be done when it’s time for bed?


Sleep and the Aging Brain

Studies suggest that more than half of patients with Alzheimer’s or other dementia have issues sleeping throughout the night. It can be frustrating and illogical that your loved one is tired during the day and suddenly as night comes, they become restless and even wide awake.

An unfortunate consequence of aging, even if the brain remains relatively healthy, is that sleep becomes harder. The quality of most people’s sleep gradually deteriorates as we age. Deeper sleep is important for mental health. Studies have suggested that someone who has difficulty sleeping is more at risk to develop Alzheimer’s. While elderly people tend to sleep more, sometimes as many as 14 hours per day, it is rarely restorative deep sleep. They are more likely to wake for reasons including discomfort and having to use the bathroom.

Insomnia is much worse for people with dementia, many of whom cannot get more than an hour or two of continuous sleep before waking up often disoriented.


Does Someone with Dementia/Alzheimer’s Need More Sleep?

People with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s or other dementias do not require more sleep than healthy individuals of the same age. However, the quality of the sleep they experience can be very poor. To accommodate for poor sleep, many individuals will sleep more hours.

Someone with dementia is already suffering from an inability to process the surrounding world, but imagine adding drowsiness to the equation. Not getting enough sleep, even in healthy brains, causes tension and moodiness. In someone with dementia, the effects are magnified. Feeling tired provokes aggressive outbursts, irritability, moodiness, and depression. Mistakes become more common as an elderly person is much more likely to fall or suffer an accident after a bad night’s sleep.

Days become more difficult after a poor night of sleep. Caregivers are advised not to compensate for a bad night’s sleep by allowing a person with dementia to sleep throughout the day.

We all have circadian rhythms that help regulate our bodies’ daily physical and mental cycles. Also known as the internal clock, circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack as one’s sense of day and night is lost. The resulting effect is confusion. People with dementia can be confused about whether it’s day or night, even if they can see whether the sun is up or down. For these reasons, working to maintain a sleep routine is important, even when it becomes difficult.


What About Excessive Sleep?

Seemingly excessive sleep may be unavoidable. As symptoms of dementia become more severe, especially in the later stages of the disease, sleeping more during both day and nighttime is common. This is because as brain function deteriorates the body loses strength, making things like listening and trying to communicate exhausting.

It is also possible that medications, particularly antipsychotics and antidepressants, will cause side effects that include sleepiness.

If someone in the earlier stages of dementia is unexpectedly sleepier than normal, it is important to speak with a doctor. Difficulty sleeping, instead of excessive sleep, is much more common in early-stage dementia. Drowsiness may indicate something else is wrong, like infection or adverse reactions to medication.

Studies have indicated that Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB), a form of dementia associated with how the brain processes protein, has shown higher rates of drowsiness during the day than Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Tiredness in these cases can be unrelated to how well a person slept the night before.


Causes of Sleep Challenges with Alzheimer’s/Dementia

People with Alzheimer’s and other dementias lose their circadian rhythm, which is our internal sense of night and day. This means that even in the evening someone might believe it’s morning and therefore not an appropriate time to go to bed. Someone exhausted from a long day can lose the ability to understand when it’s time to sleep. So despite a tired body sending signals craving bedtime, a dementia-racked mind will override those cues. The result of this is aggravation and anxiety. Wandering and even yelling at night are common symptoms.

There are other reasons someone with dementia has trouble sleeping. As the sense of reality deteriorates, less lighting means more shadows can make the environment frightening. Restless leg syndrome, common for people with dementia, causes unpleasant crawling or tingling sensations and strikes typically during periods of rest, especially at night.

Another important factor for caregivers to consider is that their loved one may be sensitive to nonverbal cues. Ideally, as nighttime approaches, caregiving is stressful and if the day has been frustrating it can be hard to hide its effects. This can cause an aggravated response in someone with dementia and make it more difficult to go to sleep.


Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s/Dementia

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. This can be because of relaxing muscles in the throat or a problem with signals from the brain. Researchers have found that a gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease is also prevalent in cases of sleep apnea. The genetic link means sleep apnea is another potential cause of restlessness at night for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Sleep apnea’s side effects include waking throughout the night and subsequent daytime fatigue.

Treatments for sleep apnea can be as simple as taking muscle relaxers, sleeping on one’s side, or losing weight, but in cases involving dementia, it is more complicated. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, a mask worn while sleeping at night, are often prescribed for sleep apnea but may not be viable for late-stage dementia sufferers because of nighttime confusion. Special dental appliances and surgery are also options. If your loved one with dementia suffers from sleep apnea, consult with a doctor about treatment options.

 A study of Alzheimer’s patients and CPAP machines conducted by the University of California, San Diego found that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s could tolerate sleeping with their masks for about five hours nightly, and also demonstrated mild cognitive improvement.



Sundowning is a term for increasing anxiety, confusion, or aggression at the end of the day, reported in roughly 20 percent of people with Alzheimer’s. The exact reason sundowning occurs is not medically established. Someone with Alzheimer’s may simply be more tired. The difficulties of caregiving may become less tolerable at the end of long days, so they are more sensitive in late evenings to anger and moodiness from a loved one in cognitive decline. Sundowning has been reported as a common factor for loved ones deciding to move a person into assisted living communities like nursing homes or memory care. More on sundowning.


Sleep During the Different Stages of Dementia

Sleep quality for someone with Alzheimer’s changes over time. In the disease’s late stages, sleeping more during both day and nighttime is common because day-to-day activities are more difficult and exhausting. In the first stages, difficulty sleeping is common. Fewer hours of deep sleep in people over 60 has been studied as a possible early sign of Alzheimer’s or other dementia. If someone in the earlier stages of dementia is unexpectedly sleepier than normal, it is important to see a doctor. Drowsiness may indicate a problem like infection or adverse reactions to medication.

 Did you Know? Some estimates say it’s common for a person with dementia to be awake for 40 percent of their time in bed at night. There have even been reports of people with Alzheimer’s or dementia whose entire sleep cycle shifts, so they’ll sleep throughout the day and be up all night.


Medications for Sleeplessness Associated with Alzheimer’s/Dementia

Experts advise avoiding sleep medications because of side effects like confusion and being more accident-prone. Antidepressants, benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, and antipsychotics have been prescribed to combat dramatic changes in sleep cycles.

Another non-pharmaceutical option may be Cannabidiol (CBD), a compound derived from cannabis plants. CBD has demonstrated medicinal effects without the “high” of marijuana, and research shows it can relieve symptoms of dementia and helps maintain circadian rhythms. More on CBD, its legality and benefits.

Careful consideration of the pros and cons of medicating sleeplessness should be prioritized by caregivers and non-medication methods for helping someone sleep better should be tried first.


Non-Medication Tips to Help with Sleep

Sleep can be challenging for dementia patients. When this happens, looking at ideas to promote better sleep through non-medicated options is the best way to support your loved one. Some tips are:

– Create a routine. Try to have your loved one wake up and go to bed around the same time every day. Establishing a routine makes the process less challenging.

– Be conscientious about lighting in the evenings, so it does not get too dark inside but dims enough late in the day to indicate the time of day.

– Red or amber nightlights can help someone who wakes up confused realize that it is still nighttime. Brighter lighting at night could cause someone to believe it’s daytime when it’s not.

– Create a comfortable sleep environment, paying attention to temperature and lighting. This can include using blackout curtains, soft bedding, and support pillows to maximize comfort and create the least amount of possible disruptions.

– Going outside in the mornings and evenings to experience outdoor lighting has been shown to help maintain our internal body clocks.

– Be mindful of caregiver exhaustion. Body language can express frustration even more powerfully than words.

– Avoid stimulants like coffee and alcohol. Watching TV at night has also been shown to excite a person and make sleep more difficult. Try a cup of herbal tea to promote relaxation.

– Active days can be essential for sleep. Regular daily exercise is good for the brain and also helps with restlessness. Exercise tires out the body enabling better sleep. Try to avoid physical exertion in the evenings because this can stimulate some people.

– The best time for naps is before noon. Naps can be helpful for someone who is extremely tired but they need to be limited. Additionally, afternoon naps can cause someone to feel less sleepy at night.

– Soft music, white noise machines, or even just a fan have been demonstrated to help some people fall more easily into sleep.

– Massage may also enable relaxation and help a person fall more easily into sleep.

– Try different ways to relax before bed. Promote relaxation through calming activities in the evening like reading (solo or together), doing a puzzle, taking a warm bath, and listening to soft music.

– Interact socially during the day. Your loved one interacting on a social level and engaging in activities during the day can help tire their body to promote sleepiness in the evenings.