Sundowner’s Syndrome is the name given to an ailment that causes symptoms of confusion after “sundown.” These symptoms appear in people who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. Not all patients who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s exhibit Sundowner’s symptoms, however. Conversely, some people exhibit symptoms of dementia all day which grow worse in the late afternoon and evening, while others may exhibit no symptoms at all until the sun goes down.
Sundowner’s Syndrome largely remains a mystery to medical science, although there are several theories about why these symptoms begin at night. More and more studies are being conducted to try to determine the exact cause.
In the meantime, some doctors believe it’s an accumulation of all of the sensory stimulation from the day which begins to overwhelm and cause stress. Some speculate that Sundowner’s Syndrome is caused by hormonal imbalances that occur at night. Still others believe that the onset of symptoms at night is due to simple fatigue, while some believe it has to do with the anxiety caused by the inability to see as well in the dark.
The theory that the symptoms have something to do with darkness has been supported by studies where the symptoms subside within an hour of the return of daylight. There is some evidence that nursing facility patients show an increase in Sundowner’s symptoms during winter, which may suggest a correlation with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is believed to cause depression in the winter due to the shorter periods of sunlight, and it affects people of all ages.
There are actually at least 70 different conditions that cause similar symptoms of confusion and loss of mental capacity, usually in the elderly. Alzheimer’s Disease is only one form of dementia. All types of dementia generally begin as a subtle loss of memory, which may barely be noticeable since everyone struggles somewhat with memory. However, when the symptoms worsen gradually over time, dementia is usually the culprit. While it’s normal to forget where you put your house keys, for example, it isn’t normal to forget your street address, at least not for more than a few seconds.
Dementia can affect a person’s ability to logically judge circumstances, which means they’re no longer able to safely care for themselves. Studies have shown that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease generally live from one to 20 years after diagnosis, with the average person living just eight years with the disease. It is one of the leading causes of death among the elderly. It’s estimated that as many as four million Americans have Alzheimer’s Disease, and this doesn’t include the other forms of dementia.
Just as the causes of Sundowner’s Syndrome are largely a mystery, the same is true for Alzheimer’s and dementia. The symptoms are believed to be a result of neurons in the brain that stop working, and autopsies on people with Alzheimer’s show abnormal brain cells. Some forms of dementia are believed to be genetic, while others appear to have no genetic link whatsoever.
Strokes, Parkinson’s Disease, and Huntington’s Disease put a person more at risk for dementia. In advanced forms of Parkinson’s Disease, dementia is almost inevitable and is called “Parkinson’s-related dementia.”