You know how quickly dementia can affect your memory, but it can also affect parts of the brain that handle visual information coming from your eyes. In addition, dementia can throw off your body’s natural circadian rhythm which can cause sleep disturbances.
Up until recently, the only solution many dementia sufferers and their loved ones could find were sleep medications. Unfortunately, those are rife with side effects and can ultimately make abnormal sleep worse.
But now, there’s a simple remedy that can not only restore healthy circadian rhythm and a healthy sleep cycle, it can also improve cognitive function.
In fact, a recent scientific review described this solution called light therapy as “one of the most promising nonpharmacological interventions for improving core symptoms of dementia.”
We’re not surprised. We’ve written about light therapy as an effective treatment for dementia several times before, and we’re hoping this new research will help get the word out to sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones.
Light therapy research has focused on phototherapy, a type of light therapy often used to treat skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis using ultraviolet light. But studies have confirmed that phototherapy also has other applications. Especially when using different spectrums of light. For instance, blue light is used to treat jaundice, and red light is used to treat acne, scars, wrinkles, and even lesions from the herpes virus.
Another proven use of phototherapy is in the treatment of seasonal mood disorders and poor sleep quality.
Light, circadian rhythms and sleep disturbances
Studies show that phototherapy also helps people suffering with sleep problems from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It works by resetting the body’s circadian rhythms, your internal biological clock. And this got researchers thinking. Since your body’s clock regulates so many healthy body processes and often goes awry in people with dementia, will light therapy help Alzheimer’s patients?
So, scientists from China carried out an extensive review of existing scientific research to see whether phototherapy is a viable option to help people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The results were pretty amazing…
Light therapy improves cognition in 12 studies
The review included phototherapy interventions of all forms, frequencies, and durations, including use of bright light treatment, LED light, and blue or blue-green light.
The scientists were mainly interested in cognitive outcome as measured by the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), a widely used cognitive test covering six areas of mental abilities. During this test, researchers give people a score on their cognitive function ranging from zero to thirty.
Other areas of this scientific review included analyzing behavioral and psychological symptoms, as well as those well-known sleep disturbances that dementia patients often experience.
To meet the criteria for the review, all study patients had to be elderly and diagnosed with some form of dementia. They also had to receive either phototherapy or some other form of cognitive intervention for comparison.
Only 12 studies met the criteria but included a total of 766 patients with dementia ― 426 in the phototherapy group and 340 in the control group. For changes in cognition, only three randomized controlled studies were applicable containing 121 participants in total.
Cognitive test scores increase more than two points
The results showed that phototherapy produced a significant positive improvement of 2.68 on the MMSE score compared to controls. As for side effects, only four participants given phototherapy reported any, and these were mild and transitory.
Among the twelve trials, phototherapy didn’t produce any improvements in depression, agitation, or sleep disturbances, however. By the way, when it comes to treating depressive symptoms or SAD, a 2019 review recommends a sunlamp rated for treatment of mood disorders. Others may not have the level of bright light to improve symptoms.
“One of the most promising non-drug interventions”
In their review published in the journal Brain and Behavior in April, the scientists wrote: “As drug treatment for dementia has limitations such as medical contraindications, limited efficacy, and adverse effects, non-pharmacological therapy has been increasingly regarded as a critical part of comprehensive dementia care.
“Our meta-analysis indicates that phototherapy improved cognitive function in patients with dementia…This suggests that phototherapy may be one of the most promising nonpharmacological interventions for improving core symptoms of dementia.”
We couldn’t agree more. Bright light therapy for dementia symptoms is an exciting new area of treatment that is accessible to virtually everyone. Best of all, other studies not included in the review also support the beneficial findings of light therapy.
Light therapy improves mild and severe dementia symptoms
One study used bright light therapy for eight weeks in patients with mild-to-severe dementia and found significant improvement in the MMSE score when compared with the control group.
Another study found light reduced cognitive deficits in the elderly by five percent during the course of the study. And a previous review published in 2014 also showed a trend in improving cognitive function with the use of phototherapy.
But it begs the question, why does light therapy for dementia work to alleviate symptoms of memory loss and confusion?
Light compensates for reduced sensory input
The reason why light is effective is believed to be its ability to compensate for the reduction in the visual sensory input of patients with dementia. In addition, light therapy stimulates specific neurons in the part of the brain that regulates circadian rhythms.
As circadian rhythms are involved in optimal brain function, supplementing with light may act on the synchronizing/phase-shifting effects of circadian rhythms to improve cognitive function.
Since research in this area is still early and very limited– especially when it comes to long-term studies– scientists can’t draw any definitive conclusions as to why light therapy is successful in helping Alzheimer’s patients improve their cognition.
Is sunlamp therapy the same as phototherapy?
The short answer is no.
Sunlamps produce light that looks and feels like the natural light produced by the sun. However, the lights used in light treatment for dementia and other health conditions emit UV light on a specific wavelength depending on what you’re treating.
Also, sunlamps can be used for light exposure over extended periods of time while the bright lights employed in phototherapy are usually used for a shorter, more targeted period of time.
How to get light therapy for dementia
We recommend phototherapy if you or a loved one is struggling with memory, cognitive function or general well-being following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
Phototherapy is proven safe, noninvasive, and inexpensive. Best of all, this light therapy can easily be administered in a patient’s own home. In fact, that’s the most frequently chosen route as conventional medicine is still addicted to drug therapies as a treatment for most symptoms of dementia.
If you’re interested in trying it, a light box is the most classic and commonly used device in phototherapy. It provides full-spectrum bright light. In studies in Alzheimer’s patients and those with other health conditions, the bright light is applied for 30 minutes in the daytime over a period of four to eight weeks.
In recent years, phototherapy boxes have given way to phototherapy helmets, glasses and wands. These usually employ light of a specific wavelength with a duration of approximately 15 minutes.
The Awakening From Alzheimer’s Team