When it comes to occasional insomnia, healthy adults have a number of options, including perhaps a glass of warm milk and reading an annotated history of the ukulele. It's a different story for people with Alzheimer's disease.
In 1991 Susan McCurry noticed that many of the Alzheimer's disease patients she saw at the University of Washington Geriatric and Family Services Clinic had sleep problems. She knew that sleeping medications might help, but also that they don't always work, have unwanted side effects and are intended for short-term use.
"People with Alzheimer's typically have chronic sleep problems," explains McCurry, research associate professor of psychosocial and community health. "Over-the-counter or prescription sleeping medications can cause them to become more confused, likely to fall or may even, paradoxically, make them more agitated."
When McCurry looked for drug-free strategies to try, she found little was known about what might work. Left untreated, sleep problems can lead to patient and caregiver health problems, exhaustion and premature institutionalization. So McCurry undertook the research herself at the School of Nursing.
McCurry's recent study published in Sleep Medicine introduced caregivers of Alzheimer's patients to the concept of sleep hygiene-an all-encompassing phrase for making one's environment conducive to restful sleep. McCurry found that sleep problems in Alzheimer's disease have myriad and frequently patient-specific causes, but helping caregivers change patient sleep habits and improve sleeping environments can make a difference.
"There's no magic bullet," McCurry says. "We can't change the fact that Alzheimer's impacts part of the brain that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Nevertheless, taking time to figure out if chronic pain, a snoring spouse or a bright street light is keeping patients awake can result in both patients and caregivers getting a better night's rest."