Alzheimer's art

What is bright light therapy?

For individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, the circadian rhythm can be disrupted, resulting in sleep disorders and/or challenging behaviors. Bright light helps regulate the circadian rhythm, sometimes called the “body clock,” which is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and it repeats every 24 hours.

Initially intended for individuals struggling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), bright light therapy has also been used to treat circadian problems for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. Recently, however, bright light therapy has been researched and used as a complementary therapy for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias since it may not have the potential for negative side effects or medication interactions.

Studies have shown the potential benefits of bright light therapy for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Sleeping habits improve significantly, for instance, when bright light therapy was practiced daily. In addition to improving sleep-wake cycle, researchers found that bright light therapy also decreased wandering behaviors throughout the night. Other studies have associated bright light therapy with improved cognition for those in early-stage dementia, improved behavioral functioning, and the therapy was also associated with significantly reduced levels of depression.

There are many lamps and light boxes marketed as SAD or bright light therapy. These lamps are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so it’s important to do some research before purchasing one. Individuals should always look at the safety features of the lamp, making sure the lamp filters out UV light and is labeled UV-free as UV light can damage eyes and skin. Additionally, the lamp should generate 10,000 lux (a measurement of light intensity combined with area) of cool-white fluorescent light. Further, look for a lamp that fits the individual’s style and need, one with a light surface area of about 12-15 inches, and opt for a glare-free lamp that reduces or eliminates eye glare.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the typical recommendation for bright light therapy is using it daily for about 20-30 minutes, placing it about 16-24 inches in front of the face, and using it preferably in the morning after first waking up.

The Mayo Clinic points out, too, that there may be some side effects, but that they are usually mild and short-lasting. Some side effects include eyestrain, headache, nausea, irritability or agitation, mania, euphoria and hyperactivity associated with bipolar disorder. Typically, however, any side effects associated with bright light therapy may go away on their own within a few days after initiating the therapy. Additionally, reducing treatment time, moving the face farther from the light, taking breaks during a long session, and/or changing the time of day for the therapy are all ways to manage side effects for a more positive outcome.

Though bright light therapy serves as a potential positive complementary approach to improving the lives of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, you should always discuss this type of therapy with your physician to assure it is medically appropriate for the affected individual.