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Bright light for Alzheimer's

June 20, 2008 | 10:09 am

Light200 There are few medications to treat Alzheimer's disease, and none that reverse the disorder or come without troubling side effects. The most that the two types of FDA approved drugs for the disease can offer, for some people, is a moderate slowdown in the worsening of dementia symptoms. But the price many pay in side effects from the drugs can be high: vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, headache, confusion or dizziness.

An alternative to drug treatment might be to simply replace dim light bulbs with bright ones, and keep them on all day, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Dutch researchers studied 189 elderly patients in assisted care facilities for 3.5 years. Half the group were exposed daily, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., to bright, fluorescent light, while the other half were exposed to dim lighting all day. Within each group, half were also given 2.5 mg of melatonin, a hormone that influences the sleep-wake cycle and is available in health food stores and drugstores without a prescription.

Melatonin alone helped people sleep, but increased daytime agitation and depression. But bright daytime light eliminated those consequences of melatonin. The combination of bright light and melatonin helped people sleep better, and when they woke, they were less likely to be depressed and agitated. After 3.5 years, bright daytime light reduced cognitive decline by 5%.

Those results in slowing the decline of Alzheimer's patients are similar to the modest results seen from prescription drugs. "The size of this effect is pretty close to the size of the effects of drugs currently marketed for the treatment of dementia," says Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington. Roy-Byrne did not participate in the study, but commented on it for the Web journal, JournalWatch.

So far, nothing has been found to cure Alzheimer's. But this simple, environmental approach may slow down the disease, and in the process give caretakers a bit of a breather.

--Susan Brink

Photo: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press