What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy is a type of medical intervention that consists of shining controlled amounts of light on a person for a specific amount of time. The most common uses for light are related to the treatment of skin disorders of various kinds, but historically medical professionals have used light in many different contexts, from mental health to advanced diseases like cancer.
The light in question can be as simple as natural light or it might be artificial and carefully generated to have a certain wavelength and color. The precise type of light that works best will depend on the application. In some cases, multiple kinds of light will come into play.
The idea behind using light is that we already know that the human body responds to light in various ways on its own. For example, sunlight stimulates the creation of vitamin D. The heat generated from light hitting the skin can affect bacteria. The light indoors affects how and when people sleep. Exposure to light changes both mental and physical health. Harnessing those effects for positive results is just the next logical step.
Using light in a therapeutic context is nothing particularly new. It’s been an area of interest for physicians since the days of ancient Greece. Back then, the tools and knowledge of medicine was limited, so light was one of the few possible interventions.
However, it was not until many centuries later that a doctor would try to formalize phototherapy, which is the scientific term for using light as a therapeutic intervention. That doctor was Niels Ryberg Finsen. He was born in the Faroe Islands in 1860. After going through school, he became a medical researcher in Copenhagen. Finsen was interested in using light to cure as many different diseases as possible. Little was known about exactly what light could do, so he experimented with different conditions as well as different types of light. He published two papers about phototherapy that became popular all around Europe and eventually spread elsewhere. He carried out many experiments where he found patients with diseases and then shone carefully measured light on their skin to see if there was any curative effect.
Finsen eventually won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for his work on phototherapy, and he died the next year. Today, much of what he did would not pass scientific muster. Both medicine and research techniques have advanced considerably in the past hundred years. Phototherapy got little attention for a long time because starting in the 1930s, scientists began to learn that using light wasn’t as effective as previously thought and that phototherapy was useless in most of the contexts where it had formerly been considered a go-to intervention. That began to change more recently as medical researchers returned to light and observed phenomenon such as the aforementioned vitamin D interaction. Phototherapy never regained the stature that it once had, but today medical science recognizes the important role that sunlight plays in skin conditions as well as mood and mental health.
Applications for Dementia
Phototherapy is not used as a direct treatment for dementia itself. Instead, assisted living facilities and other medical centers use light to help regulate some of the symptoms and comorbid conditions that come along with dementia. It has become part of the toolbox that doctors and staff can use when the time and the need comes.
The first of these is sleeping. Getting enough sleep and maintaining sleep quality is important for all domains of health. However, spending a lot of time indoors under artificial light can throw off many people’s internal clock, altering their sleep patterns. This is even worse for patients with dementia, because they might not have the awareness or the ability to observe this taking place. As a result, they will not try to compensate by sleeping for more time or taking some other action. The application of phototherapy is to use the indoor light to simulate the correct 24-hour light cycle by dimming and turning off the light at sunset and raising it at sunrise. This keeps the artificial light synced up to natural light, promoting healthy sleep. It seems like a simple and intuitive choice, but using light this way can significantly improve health and wellness for all the residents in a nursing home or assisted living center.
Another important application of phototherapy is to help improve mood. Exposure to sunlight is associated with a better mood, while missing out on sunlight often leads to a worse mood. In some cases, not getting enough sun can contribute to depression. This is especially problematic in the winter when there is less sun during the day and it is harder to go outside. It is possible to use both natural and artificial light to improve the moods of people with dementia. This might involve time outside in the sun, designing rooms so that they let in a lot of light, or creating artificial light that is built to mimic sunlight indoors with bulbs or diodes. The elderly are already at elevated risk for social isolation, depression, and anxiety. Dementia adds its own set of mood complications, so phototherapy can play a key role in emotional regulation for our residents.
These uses for light can be applied both to everyone in the center as a group and for individuals who need extra care. Having good control is necessary so that cases of people who are especially affected by the seasons or who are having trouble sleeping can get the attention they need to resolve the issue.
The bottom line is that phototherapy was once a key tool that doctors tried to use for all manner of conditions. Better research and scientific examination showed that phototherapy was not successful for those applications. However, recently medicine has once again begun to study just how important light can be and what it can do for health. It turns out that it has some quite useful properties for treating both physical and mental symptoms in adults with dementia. More and more assisted living facilities and adult day care centers are making use of phototherapy. That might mean obtaining equipment to make certain kinds of light, controlling the timing of lights in the building, or just placing windows with light in mind. It also extends to training staff and health professionals in the use and applications of light for residents with dementia.
Phototherapy has limits. It won’t cure most conditions, or at least not as well as other medicines. But for some of the problems that dementia patients face, it might be just what the doctor ordered. The proper use of light as therapy can do a lot to lift moods, improve sleep, and maintain the production of vitamin D and other nutrients. Taking the power of light into account should be in the arsenal of any facility that cares for people with dementia. It reflects the importance of not just researching big-picture cures and treatments for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, but also developing ways to improve the lives of the many older adults who suffer from the symptoms of those diseases today.