Recent research suggests that lighting that mimics the natural patterns of the day at night could improve the sleep problems and mood of Alzheimer’s patients living in nursing homes.
The lighting intervention, designed to stimulate the circadian rhythm of patients with dementia, which regulates sleep and wakefulness cycles, led to significant decreases in sleep disturbance, depression and agitation, the study authors said.
“One of the main reasons why patients with Alzheimer’s disease are institutionalized is lack of sleep and behavioral problems,” explained the study’s author, Mariana Figueiro. Directs the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY
“This is a very simple solution,” Figueiro added. “It has worked with more than half of the patients, if not more, and even if it can help half of the people exposed to [the light], that’s a pretty good result.”
In addition to thinking and memory problems, patients with dementia often experience symptoms such as sleep disorders, irritability, anxiety and wandering. An estimated 5.7 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The US Food and Drug Administration UU He has not approved any medication specifically to treat these symptoms in patients with Alzheimer’s, according to the researchers. All currently available medications are used “without label” for these purposes.
Figueiro and his team tested lighting interventions in 43 residents of nursing homes in three states for four weeks and in 37 nursing home residents for six months. Custom lighting included a custom-designed LED light table or individual room lighting, depending on where patients spent most of the time during the day. Personal light meters monitored patient exposures.
The lighting was designed to stimulate the body’s circadian rhythm, which drives the release of the hormone melatonin in the brain that regulates normal sleep and wake cycles. Because residents of nursing homes are often exposed to different levels of artificial light at all times of the day and night, these sleep and wake patterns may be affected, the study authors noted.
At the end of the four weeks, the sleep disturbance and depression scores in the patients exposed to the tailored intervention decreased significantly. At the end of the six months, the sleep disorder scores were reduced by half. Depression scores among those exposed to light were less than half the baseline levels, on average, the researchers reported.
Dr. Joseph Masdeu, director of the Methodist Center at the Houston Nantz National Alzheimer Center in Texas, was not surprised by the findings.
“If you put these patients in an environment where light is present all day [and night], your system is more prone to get confused than in people who are healthy,” said Masdeu, who was not involved in the research. “If you correct this problem, it may be contributing to your well-being.”
It should not be expensive for nursing homes and other facilities that care for patients with dementia to install lights like those used in the research, Figueiro said.
Several years ago, he said, “one of the barriers was technology, LEDs are now much easier … one of the barriers is the cost, but it is going down, so I hope that in the next few years we will see this more”
Figueiro also suggested that nursing employees bring patients outdoors more often to take advantage of natural light and install skylights and other architectural features that bring more light into the interior.
“We hope to attract people to think about this issue differently,” said Figueiro.
The study is scheduled for presentation Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago. Research presented at scientific conferences has generally not been reviewed or published, and the results are considered preliminary.