Research out of Penn State’s Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing and the College of Engineering has received a grant from the National Institute on Aging. The grant is being used to investigate the effects of ambient lighting interventions in nursing homes. Specifically, this investigation will examine ambient lighting’s effects on residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
As the disease progresses, dementia affects just about all aspects of everyday life. The most common symptom is memory loss, but also difficulty concentrating, communicating, mood changes, and apathy. Sleep patterns are also a noticeable change for those diagnosed, and this new study believes that these changing sleep patterns stem from disturbances in patients’ circadian rhythm.
Circadian rhythms are best described as the body’s internal clock, and it is the timeline with which our bodies perform their necessary functions, tracked over 24 hours. The best-known circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle, and the effects light plays on this rhythm are well known. In regular cycles, natural sunlight indicates to our bodies that it is time to be awake, and nighttime darkness indicates it is time for sleep. When our internal clocks are thrown off this cycle, sleeping problems and mood changes can occur.
The Penn State study began to look at the amount of natural light available to dementia patients in nursing homes. They found that many dementia patients did not have enough sunlight available to foster a healthy circadian rhythm in the homes studied. Researchers suggest ambient lighting interventions to correct this issue. The lighting interventions include exposure to bright light to stimulate the sleep-wake circadian rhythm. This light treatment is popular with those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It typically involves sitting with a lightbox, keeping one’s eyes open and engaged, but not looking directly into the light. This treatment has yielded successful results for those with SAD and also with dementia patients. Lighting interventions have been found to reduce agitation and other symptoms for those with dementia. Finding this same success in nursing homes comes with additional challenges. For someone with dementia, sitting to perform this task may not be practical on a daily basis. Also, setting up the lightboxes and encouraging the patient’s participation is a considerable amount of extra work for the nursing home staff.
Incorporating the light intervention as ambient lighting is a solution to many of these issues while patients still benefit from the treatments. The ambient lighting interventions are built into the rooms patients occupy, and they are able to go about their day in their usual routines uninterrupted. This solution also relieves staff of having to deliver lightboxes and monitor use.
The study also suggests that even with the use of lighting interventions, exposure to natural sunlight is still essential to the health of a dementia patient’s circadian rhythms. The project aims to mimic natural light cycles as much as possible. In continuation of the study, their goal is to design and fit nursing homes for dementia patients with smart ambient lighting. This smart lighting will be able to detect and adjust to the natural light available in the room and compensate for where it is lacking. The ability to adjust the lighting will offer memory care homes the option to mimic bright-dark cycles and any other lighting adjustments needed to maximize the best results possible.