Better light means better sleep
Sleep may be the next frontier for aged care. Research has revealed how better sleep can help the elderly live healthier, happier lives.
Over a third of people over the age of 65 have trouble sleeping at night. This is partially because of changing body clock – inside the brain there is a cluster of cells that help tell the body when to sleep and when to be awake. It’s this cluster that regulates our circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, as we age, this cluster becomes less and less active.
This lack of activity might be caused by a lack of light. Our circadian rhythms are normally regulated by how much light we see – the more light, the more awake we are. That’s why it’s difficult to sleep if you look at something bright just before you go to bed. As we age, our eyes start to work less well. The lens of the eye begins to get thicker, and the pupil gets smaller, meaning we get less light inside our eyes. This is particularly true in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease patients are well known for having particularly disturbed sleeping patterns. They sleep in short spurts, seldom longer than 15 minutes. This leads to both irritation and depression.
Recent research by Dr Eus Van Someren, of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, has found exciting evidence that these coincidences might be connected. Many elderly care centres are poorly lit, meaning that the people inside are only rarely exposed to bright light. Dr Van Someren changed this by increasing the light levels over three times in nursing homes. He then studied the effect of this change over a number of years. The results were remarkable. The patients had less depression, improved memory, and their ability to perform everyday tasks declined far less than would be expected. A simple thing like increasing the amount of light in the room gave similar effects to the drugs currently used to treat dementia, without the side effects.
Even if the lights in their house are dim, there’s still an easy fix for many elderly people. If they simply go outside or stay near an open window for the brightest parts of the day (wearing sun protection, of course!), they may find themselves rewarded with longer, better sleep.