I have been studying research in the area of natural light and its interaction on the human brain. An important point to make is that appropriate exposure to natural light has positive effects on our circadian rhythm and in turn promotes many aspects of health.
We evolved from exposure to natural day lighting. The sun provides a specific wavelength (blue range) in the early morning that lasts until early afternoon. At that point a different light wavelength is produced (red to orange range). We recently discovered that the retina has a specific photoreceptor that detects light and sends it to a special part of the brain known as the suprachiasm, located near the hypothalamus. Once the suprachiasm is triggered, it sets off the hypothalamus, the master gland that in turn triggers the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands of the brain and body. The hormonal reaction to light is what causes and promotes the diverse actions of the body and health.
The blue range of light helps our bodies become aroused, alert, attentive and focused. As the day proceeds and we enter the afternoon when the blue range of light shifts to the red/orange range our bodies begin the process of slowing and ultimately sleeping. Our body slows in blood pressure and we enter the four stages of sleep including deep sleep. Melatonin is produced and growth hormones are triggered.
The circadian rhythm (means approximately a day) is critically important to our health as it has effects on our immune system, ability to fight off disease, hunger and obesity, blood pressure, and cognition. It controls our sleep wake cycle so important for brain function and body regulation.
I have learned that there are design lighting systems that help to promote exposure to natural light, to help set the circadian rhythm, and to promote human performance in the workplace and school. Natural lighting via design lighting systems can also help older adults residing in assisted living or long-term care facilities. Older adults experience changes in their sleep wake cycles and this gets exacerbated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies support increased school performance by students, and reduced agitation and increased sleep for older adults who reside or study in environments with the natural day lighting systems.
Email or call me if you work in a school district, an assisted living facility, or other building and have interest in enhancing human behavior and saving money from the energy efficiencies of natural day lighting systems.
I read with great interest that the United States federal government is considering a plan that provides effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Such a national strategy is desperately needed and long overdue. It is well known that Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of progressive dementia, will increase significantly from the 5.4 million persons affected today to over 15 million by the middle of this century.
The nation already expends nearly 200 billion dollars annually in the care of those with Alzheimer’s disease and there are nearly 15 million caregivers who are directly or indirectly affected by the disease. Indeed, our entire society is affected and the national strategy is an important step. Former Speaker Gingrich has talked openly about the need for the neurosciences to be a major source of innovation for the health of the brain and I hope other politicians help to make this a reality. The Obama Administration is developing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan to address the medical and social problems of dementia. This plan is not just for treatment, but also for better daily care for dementia patients and their caregivers.
Among the major goals of the plan are to:
- Begin a national public awareness campaign of dementia’s early-warning signs to improve early diagnosis.
- Give primary care doctors the tools assess signs of dementia as part of Medicare’s annual checkup.
- Have caregiver’s physical and mental health regularly checked.
- Improve care planning and training for families, so they know what resources are available for their loved one and for themselves.
These are important and necessary goals for inclusion in any national plan. However, they are not comprehensive which is what is needed. Some critics of the plan argue that the government is not being bold enough. My suggestions for a more comprehensive plan would include the following additional goals:
- Teach the basics of the human brain to every middle school student in order to develop personal investment in the workings of the brain and how to keep the brain healthy.
- Promote and prioritize a brain health lifestyle ® using the latest research on what we can do individually and as a society to live a proactive and lifelong lifestyle that promotes the health of the brain.
- Understand that diseases the manifest late in life begin early in life. We need to consider early nonmedical interventions such as education, diet, spirituality, mental stimulation, and socialization tools that begin when a baby is developing in the womb.
- Create tax benefits for families who care for their loved ones or pay for others to care for them in the person’s home.
- Create a chronic care system for older adults that understands chronic care is not the same as acute care and that hospitals are actually not a healthy place for older adults to be admitted.
- Incentive medical doctors and other health care professionals to become specialized in geriatrics and to promote “primary care status” to the geriatrician.
- Include brain health lifestyle ® within every wellness program and incentive all persons to live such a lifestyle.
- Develop annual standardized assessments for persons to undergo to measure the health and functioning of their brain. The brain should be treated as a priority rather than continue to be neglected in our culture.
- Revise the antiquated and outdated nursing home model of care.
- Increase the funding for dementia care, lifestyle approach, and caregiver programs sufficient to achieve success much earlier than 2025.