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Why we shouldn’t keep old people in the dark

Old people’s homes can be pretty depressing places, and more light would certainly help them to be more pleasant places. But according to an expert on sleep and neuroscience, it could also improve their mental health, helping to counteract the impact of dementia.

Old people’s homes can be pretty depressing places, and more light would certainly help them to be more pleasant places. But according to an expert on sleep and neuroscience, it could also improve their mental health, helping to counteract the impact of dementia.

Professor Russell Foster, head of the Nuffield Laboratory of Opthalmology and the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, gave a lecture last week to the Institute of Lighting Professionals about his work. He is the man who discovered the ‘third receptor’ in our eyes, in addition to our rods and cones. Whereas the rods and cones are essential for vision, the third receptor, located in some of the ganglions of our eyes, responds to light over a period of time in order to tune our body clocks. These clocks, which affect a wide range of processes – not just sleep and alertness but for example blood pressure and body temperature, tend to run slow without the moderating effect of light.

Foster, not surprisingly, spoke a lot about the science, about how this discovery was made and about some later work – and it was fascinating. But he also spoke about some of the implications. One of these is in old people’s homes. Buildings in general are very dark compared to daylight, particular the daylight that we knew on the African savannas when we were evolving. Old people’s homes are even worse. And older people have difficulty resetting their body clocks in any case, and tend to have disturbed sleep-waking cycles. Any untreated cataracts will just make the problem worse.

Introducing daylight simulation into common areas (blue light is particularly vital) will, researchers have shown, help to reset their sleep-wake cycles, especially when coupled with the elimination of blue light in bedrooms at night. So the old people will be happier, and easier to manage. But what is most exciting is that, for people suffering from dementia (the majority of residents) there is also an improvement in cognitive function.

Similar although less definitive results have been shown for people with a range of mental health problems, which are also accompanied by a disturbance of the body clock. At one facility it was found that  those in east-facing rooms, where the morning sun entered, recovered faster in summer than those in west-facing rooms. 

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