Light Exposure Helps Long-Term Care Patients Housed With No Sunlight

Sunday, June 07, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: light exposure, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) Imagine the nightmare of sick and disabled persons being stuck away in a building with little to no exposure to sunlight. Think this is a scene out of the Dark Ages or some horror in a third world, backwards nation? Hardly. It turns out that countless people in the U.S. are warehoused in long-term care facilities where something all humans need to thrive is denied them -- daylight.

Although it seems as if common sense would have long ago changed this horrible situation, it is only now being addressed by researchers who want to document how health can be benefited by exposure to bright blue-white light. Scientists from Case Western Reserve have started tests to see if a change from standard fluorescent lighting to a light source more like sunlight can help the health of residents confined to a long-term care facility.

Researchers from Case Western Reserve's Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and the School of Medicine, the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center (GRECC), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center and General Electric (GE) Consumer and Industrial are working together on the project. So far, they've removed standard fluorescent lighting in a long-term care facility and installed new blue-white lamp prototypes developed by GE scientists at the company's Nela Park campus. These so-called blue lights supposedly offer sunlight-type benefits.

The scientists hypothesize that periods of blue light, like daylight, can help regulate the sleep-wake rhythm by normalizing the body's secretion of the hormone melatonin. Depending on the level of the hormone, people are sleepy or awake and alert. The researchers want to see if they can regulate the sleep-wake cycle by controlling the amount of exposure to blue-white light to spur alertness during the day and exposure to yellow-white light to boost sound sleep at night.

Changing the light source could be especially beneficial to the countless people in long-term care facilities who suffer from dementia. In fact, the research team recently completed a pilot study with five male dementia patients housed in such an institution. Blue-white bright lights were installed in an activities room where most of the facility's residents gathered for meals and daytime activities. The new lighting used in the research supposedly is bright without overpowering individuals with brightness, according to the researchers.

"We wanted to see whether lighting could affect the participants' sleep-wake rhythms. While the group was small, the results show promise in raising activity levels during daytime hours and increasing sleep at nighttime," Patricia Higgins, associate professor at the Bolton School of Nursing and one of the lead investigators, said in a statement to the media.

The Case Western researchers noted that research has mounted for several decades showing that light affects how people feel. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder characterized by symptoms that include depression, weight gain and unusual sleepiness. SAD usually begins in the fall and winter when there's less exposure to sunlight. Studies have shown that 50 to 60 percent of people diagnosed with SAD feel better after just four or five days of timed exposure to bright light.

You don't have to have full-blown case of SAD to benefit from exposure to sunlight or blue-white light, either. The Case Western University scientists noted that people particularly sensitive to changes in light often react positively to a boost in the brightness of light sources. A case in point: one unexpected side effect of the light change study was that most employees of the long-term care facility reported they felt better with the new lighting conditions.

"Why waste light if you can tune it to the right color and maximize the amount of useful light," Mariana Figueiro, assistant professor at Rensselaer and program director at Rensselaer's Lighting Research Center, said in the media statement.

If changing the lighting is documented to improve health in long-term care facilities, the researchers plan to take a natural next step and try to influence public policy to include new lighting standards for healthcare facilities. In addition, they hope to apply information from the light study to change the lighting in hospitals. The result might help patients have a speedier recovery or improve their quality of life with a good night's sleep.

As previously covered by Natural News (, there's another reason that exposure to sunlight can help improve health -- it spurs the body to produce vitamin D. A lack of that vitamin has been linked to a growing list of health problems, including dementia.

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