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We take it for granted — flipping a switch and a light coming on. But light plays a major role in everyday health and functioning.
“Light is very important to us as we age,” says Dr. Monica L. Monica, spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
How light can impact health and pathways in the brain continue to be studied.
In the last 10 to 15 years the use of light to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, has gained footing and about 10 years ago a receptor was discovered in the eye that doesn’t connect to vision, but to the hypothalamus in the brain, which is kind of like a human pacemaker, says Michael David White, a senior lighting designer at Schuler Shook with offices in Chicago and Minneapolis.
“We now understand the basics of how light affects human health and the implications are all pretty profound,” White says.
Light it up
Adding more lighting to an environment can help both vision and health, according to experts, and the good news is it is relatively inexpensive.
“This is cheap and beneficial,” White says.
He suggests people get out early in the morning for at least 30 minutes a day because sunlight can be the most beneficial and it’s free.
In addition, it can be helpful to boost the inside light artificially though it won’t have the same health benefits of bright sunlight, White says.
It’s helpful to notice the type of lighting in environments where you see well and don’t see well and make adjustments accordingly at home.
Monica agrees that small changes and playing with light can help vision as well. More than just adding another lamp it is important to make sure it isn’t increasing glare and that the type of light is appropriate.
A gooseneck lamp placed behind a chair providing over the shoulder light may help with reading or a screen illuminator placed over the computer monitor at work might help make the screen easier to see. Reading on a tablet or e-reader may be beneficial too because text size can be increased and the brightness and contrast on the page can be adjusted as well.
Better vision can increase better quality of life just as more exposure to daylight can assist in health, White says.
On the flip side, White says people should make sure they are sleeping in darkness. If a nightlight is required for a caregiver or for safety purposes, it should be amber in color, White says.
Day into night
White has been part of a team of researchers on light’s effects on health and spoke on the topic at the Environments for Aging Conference earlier this year. The findings will publish soon in the Health Environments Research and Design Journal.
The research points to the importance of light and dark and White is applying it to older adults in long-term care.
He says as the eye ages, less light gets through. In addition, the social patterns for those in long-term care often change meaning less time outside and less exposure to sunlight. Add in fall and winter in the Midwest with dark hours in the morning and by dinner most people aren’t getting a lot of light exposure.
“It’s resulted in circadian disruption,” White says. Because health facilities are often dimly lit 24-hours a day for comfort and safety, White explains, he and other experts believe it could contribute to health issues and people napping and slumping mid-day.
“We’ve accepted this as part of the aging process, but it’s not,” he says. “The circadian rhythms are out of whack and we need to do a better job of managing the 24-hour light and dark pattern.”
Beyond the light
While lighting can change an environment, for some that may not be enough, says Monica. As people age so do their eyes and sometimes issues with light are the first indicators there may be an issue.
For some, eyesight problems may show up as glare being bothersome, having trouble tolerating headlights when driving or reading signs at night. For others, it might be difficulties seeing letters and numbers on a page. Or, it might be more difficult to read for pleasure or see the computer at work. It may even inhibit going out at night.
For some, the change may be as simple as a new eyeglass prescription, the right pair of reading glasses or utilizing better lighting.
It also could mean the start of an issue that if caught early can be easily fixed or hopefully slowed such as cataracts or glaucoma.
“Light is extremely important to these people,” she says adding that proper lighting can help with visual discernment.
No matter how minor, Monica encourages people to see an ophthalmologist when they start to notice changes.
“We do surgery, we have medical treatments. If it’s something like cataracts we can fix it and make it go away,” she says. “One (condition) may be totally curable and others may be helped.”
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