Sleep disturbance is a common problem for people living with dementia, with around 40% experiencing some form of problem with their sleep. This not only has an impact on the person with dementia but also on their carers whose quality of sleep will also be affected.

Treating insomnia or sleep disturbance is not easy and there is a difference between finding a drug or coping method that simply helps someone sleep for longer, and finding one that helps improve restorative sleep and leaves the patient with no negative effects throughout the waking hours.

However, there is hope that sleep issues in dementia could be problem of the past. A range of new studies are looking into the issue of sleep problems among people who live with dementia. One of these studies is the ‘Suvorexant’ study.

This study is looking at whether a drug could have a positive effect on the sleep of someone with dementia that is experiencing insomnia, but without any undesirable effects on their cognitive performance in the daytime.

Dr Martin Allen is Chief Investigator for the study. He explained why the relationship between sleep problems and dementia is especially pertinent:

“If sleep is very broken or is of a particularly bad quality, this undoubtedly has an effect on mental capabilities and performance. So if someone has dementia and is having trouble sleeping, this will make the cognitive function worse, giving the impression that their dementia is progressing”.

Trevor Burches is sole carer for his mother who has dementia. She experiences frequent trouble sleeping during the night and in the past has struggled to differentiate between day and night.

Trevor was told about the ‘DREAMSTART’ study by a local charity contact and enrolled to see if there were ways to help improve his mother’s quality of sleep. The study itself consists of series of visits spaced over a number of weeks. The person with dementia is required to wear a watch-type device which monitors their sleep levels through the night and a different technique or method is tried after each visit and they are then evaluated against each other.

Trevor believes that the study has taught him a range of new skills that will help his mother improve her sleep. He said,

“It has opened my eyes to a few different tactics. Some of the tools that are used are the classic things that you would use to get a kid to sleep like slowing things down in the lead up to bed time. Exercise is important too and keeping active.”

Dr Martin Allen, Principal Investigator for the Suvorexant study

Dr Allen believes that the association between dementia and insomnia is now being looked at with the scrutiny it deserves. There is currently a great deal of research being conducted in this area, whether it is drug trials like Suvorexant or studies with a focus on improving quality of life for the person with dementia and their carer. He explained,

“In the past 10 years or so, people have realised the importance of sleep and that poor quality or disturbed sleep can have a significant impact on a person’s dementia and general health. There is now an increased focus on the health benefits of good sleep – both for the person with dementia and their carer, whose lives are also disrupted by the lack of sleep.”

For this reason, both Dr Allen and Trevor recommend getting involved with dementia research. On the subject of taking part in the DREAMSTART study, Trevor said:

“I would say that taking part was a good thing. On the whole, it didn’t really interfere with daily life and even if you don’t think you’re going to get something from it, you might get some benefit that you hadn’t thought of”.

To see if you are eligible for either of these studies, and any others in your local area, sign in or register at Join Dementia Research.