Using Light Therapy to Help With Dementia
Light therapy seems to be growing in popularity among wellness professionals and for good reason, too. The benefits are vast and varied, ranging from increased energy and better sleep to increased focus and lowered blood pressure. It’s also accessible, noninvasive, safe, and convenient.
But perhaps what’s most exciting about this treatment is that a small number of studies have suggested that using light therapy may be beneficial for people with dementia.
That’s exciting news for caregivers!
It’s typically used in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of seasonal depression that occurs during the winter months. So, the exploration of how it could impact older adults who are prone to depression, anxiety, and memory loss was a natural next step in the evolution of light and phototherapy. The results of that exploration have been remarkable.
Let’s take a look at the specifics.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy machines are typically composed of fluorescent lights that simulate sunshine and rest on a reflective metal base. They also have a plastic screen on top to diffuse the light and filter out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Proper exposure — as outlined by the manufacturer’s recommendations — increases melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D levels. It’s that proverbial flood of all these “feel good” chemicals that caught the attention of dementia specialists.
Using light therapy, for all its complexities and benefits, is very straightforward. All anyone needs is a light therapy lamp, an outlet, and a little time to spare.
Does Light Therapy Help With Dementia?
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the circadian rhythm — the biological clock that regulates the specific behaviors that operate on a 24-hour cycle. Most notably? Sleep. In simple terms, your circadian rhythm is what tells your brain when you feel tired, energized, and hungry.
Sometimes, particular disturbances throw everything into chaos. For older adults living with dementia, their symptoms can disrupt their circadian rhythm, which often leads to long, sleepless nights and restless agitation. In most instances, hypnotic medications are prescribed but usually come with adverse side effects like nausea, increased amnesia, and an increased risk of falling.
But it just so happens that light technology might be the answer.
Research shows that light is a powerful cue. Proper exposure both resets the circadian rhythm of melatonin production and inhibits melatonin synthesis, regulating the natural sleep/wake cycle.
One study showed that using light therapy improved sleep disturbance in four participants, all of whom were dementia patients. It’s a small sampling of what could lead to massive breakthroughs in the future.
Another much more extensive study found that timed light therapy can prevent drowsiness during the daytime hours and improve the length and quality of sleep at night.
Additional studies have found that after light therapy sessions, improvements can be seen in energy levels, attention span, mood, and concentration. While promising, these studies are limited and further research may be necessary to support the current findings.
Is Light Therapy Right for Your Loved One?
Light therapy and/or light technology are not considered a cure for dementia, insomnia, or any other health-related issues. However, it’s so safe and convenient that the benefits are well worth any effort to seek treatment. If your loved one is struggling to sleep peacefully and on a regular schedule, light therapy might just help get their circadian rhythm back on track. But there are other things you can do, too.
In addition to light therapy, here are some other trusted ways to help your loved one reset their biological clock:
- Follow a regular sleep schedule
- Make sleeping areas as dark as possible
- Get natural sunlight every day, especially in the morning
- Avoid electronic use at night
The Final Word On Using Light Therapy
Light therapy can help relieve sleep issues associated with insomnia, jet lag, seasonal affective disorder, and depression.
While exposure to bright white full spectrum light (10,000lux) for around 30-60 minutes is a great component of treatment for older adults living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it isn’t a cure. Patients and caregivers should always combine light therapy with exercise, healthy eating habits, and other forms of treatment (like sensory activities) to get the best results.
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