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The term "sundowning" refers to a state of confusion occurring in the late afternoon and spanning into the night. Sundowning can cause a variety of behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions. Sundowning can also lead to pacing or wandering.
Sundowning isn't a disease, but a group of symptoms that occur at a specific time of the day that may affect people with dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. The exact cause of this behavior is unknown.
Some research suggests that a low dose of melatonin — a naturally occurring hormone that induces sleepiness — alone or in combination with exposure to bright light during the day may help ease sundowning.
When sundowning occurs in a care facility, it may be related to the flurry of activity during staff shift changes or the lack of structured activities in the late afternoon and evening. Staff arriving and leaving may cue some people with Alzheimer's to want to go home or to check on their children — or other behaviors that were appropriate in the late afternoon in their past. It may help to occupy their time with another activity during that period.
Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.
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