Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Bright lights may improve dementia symptoms

In Brief

Bright lights may improve dementia symptoms

Elderly patients with dementia not only experience deterioration in their ability to think and reason, but also suffer from disturbances in mood, behavior, sleep, and overall ability to live independently. Five drugs are currently FDA-approved for the treatment of dementia, but they are at best only modestly effective at improving symptoms.

In a search for alternatives, researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience tested two novel treatments: bright overhead lights and melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate daily wake-and-sleep (circadian) rhythms.

They conducted their study at 12 elderly group care facilities in the Netherlands, where they followed 189 residents (with a mean age of 86) for an average of 15 months, although some were followed for three and a half years. In six facilities, the researchers installed ceiling-mounted bright lights, which were kept on from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The lights provided about 1,000 lux of illumination (about twice as bright as a well-illuminated office — and much brighter than the typical residential living room). Patients in all 12 group homes were then randomized to receive 2.5 mg of melatonin at night or placebo.

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