Dementia, Melatonin & Insomnia in the Elderly

Melatonin is promoted as a fast and natural sleep aid, with fewer side effects than traditional prescription sleep medications. Its natural quality is part of what makes it so appealing; however, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Some elderly people, including those with underlying dementia, may increase their risk for serious medical complications by taking melatonin without supervision.

Melatonin may help seniors who suffer from insomnia, though it may not be safe for those with dementia. (Image: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images)

Dementia and Its Side Effects

Dementia is a category of disorders that causes some degree of cognitive impairment. While not everyone who has a dementia disorder is elderly, the diagnosis is more common in older adults who have either Alzheimer's disease or lewy body disease. Most people know that dementia causes confusion and forgetfulness; however, its other related symptoms include agitation, depression, hallucinations and sleep disturbances. Sleep disturbances are of particular interest, as they may intensify other related dementia side effects.

Melatonin and Dementia

Melatonin is a hormone that everyone produces naturally. It is thought to play a role in both how long it takes us to get to sleep, and how long we remain asleep. Our melatonin levels vary throughout the day, though they are often highest at nighttime, which is when they help to promote healthy sleep patterns. While there is little research relating to the levels of natural melatonin and the effect of synthetic melatonin in people with dementia, the supplement may improve sleep patterns in those with the disorder. A study reviewed by the University of South Carolina revealed a 27-minute increase in sleep after taking melatonin. The participants, 87 percent of whom had dementia, also fell asleep faster when taking the supplement.

Melatonin and Senior Insomnia

Insomnia is not only common in those with dementia, but it is common in the elderly population in general. Research reviewed by regarding the use of melatonin for senior insomnia unrelated to dementia revealed similar findings: Those who took melatonin supplements reported increased sleep quality. While the evidence shows promise, the studies have been small and have not focused on the longer-term effects of regular melatonin use. In addition, many of the findings are based on participants' self-report as opposed to measurable outcomes.

Is Melatonin Safe for Seniors?

Melatonin seems to be safe in the short term for people without many underlying conditions, including those who are elderly. However, those with diabetes or who take blood thinners must be cautious when taking melatonin, as it can interact with medications for these conditions. In addition, melatonin can lower blood pressure. When it comes to those with dementia, melatonin is not recommended based on its potential negative side effects. The USC reported that some study participants with dementia experienced more depressive symptoms after taking the supplement. Melatonin can be used by people with underlying medical and psychiatric conditions, including dementia; however, PubMed Health recommends close supervision by a medical doctor.

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