Dementia Care: Light Therapy May Help Alleviate Some Alzheimer's Symptoms

Light Therapy Can Help with Sundowning in Dementia Patients

For many years, light therapy has been used to treat a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  This is a disorder in which an individual becomes depressed when the length of daylight is significantly shorter, in our geography in the fall and winter months, hence the name "seasonal."

In Alzheimer's patients, light therapy has also been used effectively to help treat the "sundowning" effect that often accompanies Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.  Sundowning is a term that refers to the patient becoming more confused and disoriented later in the day. The World Alzheimer's Congress conducted a study to determine how effective light therapy would be for dementia care. The results showed that a drop in nighttime activity and insomnia was linked to the light therapy. It also helps in the reduction of agitation and delusions in Alzheimer's patients.

Like with so many aspects of dementia care, the causes of sundowning aren't fully known but there are some factors that seem to influence it:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Low lighting
  3. Shadows
  4. Disruption of the body's internal clock (also known as circadian rhythms)

As you can imagine, light therapy would address at least items 2 and 3, and maybe even number 4, so it is certainly a viable option to try.  And it is generally simple and safe, with "light boxes" developed specifically for therapeutic use.  Of course, ALWAYS check with your doctor first for specific information and advice on this form of dementia care.  There are some conditions (e.g. those which make skin or eyes extremely sensitive to bright light, history of skin cancer, taking certain medications that increase sensitivity to light)  that preclude the use of light therapy.

Some tips to using light boxes for therapy include:

  • Get the right light box. Do some research and talk to your doctor before buying a light therapy box.  Your light box needs to be safe, the right brightness, and convenient to use.
  • Be consistent. Stick to a daily routine of light therapy sessions.
  • Include other treatment. If symptoms don't improve with light therapy, your loved one may need additional treatment. Talk with your doctor about other treatment options, such as therapy or medications.

For more information:

Mayo Clinic Article on Choosing a "Light Box" for therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Mayo Clinic Article on Sundowning