08/30/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Understanding Dementia: What to Expect With Sundowning

When a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, there are a number of side effects that can accompany this devastating disease. One of the most important side effects to understand is something known as sundowning. This is something that impacts many but not all individuals with Alzheimer's disease, and the best way to deal with sundowning as a friend or family member of someone with dementia is to be prepared and to have a full understanding of what this condition entails.

The name sundowning was developed to explain the increased agitation, confusion and sometimes even hyperactivity that take place with individuals with dementia during the later afternoon and the evening. As a loved one of someone with Alzheimer's disease, you may notice very drastic personality changes when sundowning occurs or you may notice a much more subtle change in tendencies. Many times, sundowning will start to take place during the late afternoon and the evening; however, each individual is different when it comes to when they will experience sundowning, how long it will last and how severe sundowning will be. Typically sundowning begins to set in during the middle stages of dementia and typically worsens as the disease progresses.

Sundowning is one of the many side effects of dementia that experts have yet to fully understand. Right now there is no specific explanation of the causes of sundowning or understanding of why this condition happens. However, many professionals believe that dementia may cause damage to the body's internal clock, which is why sundowning is so common. This damage can interrupt the normal sleep-wake cycle in the body. The result is increased irritability and change in behavior and mood during the evening. The cause may be as simple as the disrupted sleep cycle and renders those with dementia unable to process information and to increase the confusion, making them more tired and irritable while in the confused state.

Understanding sundowning and what it is is an important first step in the process of handling sundowning with Alzheimer's patients. Experts have come up with several tips or guides to handling sundowning, however, finding the right approach to handling sundowning of course depends on the individual. One of the most common suggestions is to avoid activities late in the afternoon or in the evening, as this is when sundowning tends to be worst. Working to get an individual with Alzheimer's disease on a normal sleep cycle is also thought to be helpful with lessening the severity of sundowning. The best ways to do this is to limit the amount of naps taken and to help individuals get on a set, routine schedule that they adhere to every day.

Simple things like this and planning and preparing for sundowning to occur is the best way to handle this often troubling side effect of Alzheimer's disease. As with many of the symptoms associated with dementia, the best course of action is always to be prepared, to try to remain patient, and to keep trying different techniques and solutions until you find the best possible option for you and your loved one.

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