Alzheimer’s Patients Benefit from “Daylight” Therapy
A study conducted by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY brings into focus the positive effects of regular exposure to bluish light on those suffering from Alzheimer’s. For practitioners of Active Alzheimer’s Care, as well as for those who are committed to the idea of aging in place, this is exciting news.
NPR’s Robert Siegel recently spoke with geriatric psychiatrist Guerman Ermolenko and researcher Mariana Figueiro about their experiences and findings in the world of light. It appears that bluish light may help restore balance to the Circadian system, the body’s “internal clock” which helps us to distinguish night from day, and which is frequently out of sync in Alzheimer’s patients.
The thought is that the Circadian system takes its cues from the visual system. To quote Dr. Figueiro, “The Circadian system is what we call a blue-sky detector. It’s looking for blue light when it comes to synchronizing the Circadian system to solar day.” In other words, the blue of the sky, and utilizing lighting that emanates this spectrum of color (frequently referred to now as “daylight” in your local hardware store and sold in the form of compact fluorescents and LEDs) is telling the body to “wake up” and can produce results in patients that lead to greater safety and well-being. Staying awake during the day means sleeping through the night, and that equals less roaming around in the dark, less confusion and disorientation, fewer injuries resulting from falls.
At the Albany County Nursing Home Dr. Figueiro has found a way of integrating this light into daily routines. She and Dr. Ermolenko showed Siegel a table that she designed for those who weren’t able to sit in front of a light box for any length of time. The surface of the table is a flat-screen TV that glows bright blue. Just by sitting at it during the day the Circadian system is being realigned to its natural rhythms. Dr. Ermolenko noted that two of the women who sat at the table the most seemed to be less irritable, especially during hands-on care, and that now “we do see that they’re pretty calm and happy.” He does acknowledge, however, that for some of their patients the light doesn’t work as well, that it may be too stimulating, and for them they have decreased the amount of light.
But he is optimistic, looking for new ways to increase light therapy at this and other facilities. In one, for example, not tables but lamps in bedrooms are being used, and the results so far are encouraging.
Ultimately the goal, to paraphrase Dr. Figueiro, is to show that this kind of lighting works in achieving positive results and to design buildings from the start so that they are lit accordingly, “then everyone can get the benefit of having that kind of light.”
It probably goes without saying now that if you like to read yourself to sleep it’s probably best to stick with soft yellows and real pages, or at least a screen that doesn’t mimic the sky.
And finally, this came up in the comments under the transcript of the interview on NPR, the very reasonable question, “Why not just go outside, then?” The answer is that aside from climates which may limit the amount of time we can comfortably spend outside, physical strength and mobility are also issues which have to be taken into account, especially with those who require around-the-clock care. No one would argue that manufactured bluish light is better than actual blue sky, but this is one way that we may be able to improve the quality of life for our loved ones who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other related diseases. It’s a big step in the right direction.