Sundown Syndrome and Dementia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

What is Sundown Syndrome?

Sundown Syndrome or sundowning are terms that describe a marked increase in confusion and agitation in the late afternoon or early evening hours in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The most severe cases of Sundown Syndrome may include extreme anger and agitation along with anxiety, aggression and depression. More often than not, these extreme symptoms fade overnight and during the daytime hours until the cycle begins again at sundown. If you are caring for someone who exhibits symptoms of Sundown Syndrome, you may feel confused and anxious about your loved one’s seemingly random mood swings and behavior. The good news is there are ways you can help.

What causes Sundown Syndrome?

Though doctors and dementia experts are not yet 100% certain on what causes Sundown Syndrome, studies strongly suggest that disruptions in our body’s circadian rhythms are to blame. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour schedule and respond mainly to light and darkness in the environment. Circadian rhythms affect the body’s internal clock by regulating our natural sleep-wake cycles. When our circadian rhythms are off balance, our natural cycle is disrupted resulting in abnormal sleep-wake patterns. Therefore, it’s common for someone experiencing Sundown Syndrome to sleep during the day and be awake at night. Current research also suggests that those with dementia experience an internal shift that causes energy and brain activity levels to “shut-down” earlier in the evening which can lead to the increased levels of confusion and agitation often displayed by those suffering from Sundown Syndrome.

How can I help a loved one suffering from Sundown Syndrome?

While there is no cure for Sundown Syndrome, there are steps you can take to minimize your loved one’s symptoms and discomfort. For instance, full-spectrum fluorescent lamps can help to reset one’s circadian rhythms back to a more normal pattern by mimicking the sun’s rays. Turning down interior lights at dusk can also trigger the release of melatonin, a hormone which tells the body that it’s time to go to sleep. Music therapy, melatonin supplements and aromatherapy have also been shown to lesson and/or mitigate sundowning symptoms in many dementia patients. Through patience, education and assistance from Alzheimer’s and dementia professionals like those at The Ganzhorn Suites, people with dementia and Sundown Syndrome can still live a happy and fulfilling life.