I found this article in a recent issue of AARP and thought you readers might enjoy it. I thought it was very insightful and I credit this article to writer Christine Ianzito, who contributed it to AARP Magazine.
Bright New Remedies: Researchers are exploring how light therapy can be used to treat ailments from depression to Alzheimer’s.
By Christine Ianzito
For an increasing number of health conditions, the right medicine might simply be a dose of bright light. Here’s a sampling of the promising and often surprising research underway.
Light therapy is most associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that hits some people during darker winter days but what’s exciting is the growing number of studies pointing toward this therapy’s effectiveness in treating nonseasonal depression.
In a 2015 study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, subjects with depression were given Prozac, a placebo, light therapy or Prozac and light therapy for eight weeks. The people who used light therapy or Prozac improved more than the placebo group, but those who combined light therapy with Prozac saw the most improvement.
As with SAD treatments, the light works by stimulating the retina, says Norman E. Rosenthal, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington D.C. The retina signals the brain’s hypothalamus, “which then funnels the info in many directions, one of which is involved in boosting serotonin.”
To treat SAD, people use a specially designed light, a good one costs around $150.00 of at least 10,000 lux (the equivalent of being outside on a clear spring day). Its placed about two feet from the face, usually for 10 to 30 minutes in the morning. Experts advise people with nonseasonal depression to consult their doctor before trying self-treatment with SAD light, which can exacerbate some eye conditions.
In a small clinical trial, researchers applied LED lights to Alzheimer’s patients with two devices, one worn like a headset and another that clips to the nose for 20 to 25 minutes twice a week. Over 12 weeks the subjects reported a dramatic improvement in their cognitive abilities, says one of the study’s coauthors, Michael Hamblin, principal investigator at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Then they removed the device and they all got worse,” Hamblin says. “But when they were given their own device to use at home, they all improved for a second time.”
The treatment seems to work because a small amount of the light is able to reach the brain, which is extremely sensitive to light. Scientists say the light stimulates new cell growth and connections between neurons. Known as photobiomodulation, this approach is still in its early testing stages, though more patients are now receiving the same therapy used in Hamblin’s study, a $499 product called Vielight. Scientists are also excited for its potential to treat Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury and more ailments.
The idea of dawn simulation has been around for a while but it has just now become a mainstream way to improve sleep patterns. The simulators are specially designed bedside LED lights costing $20.00 and up, that turn on 20 to 30 minutes before the alarm sounds. (Some can add soothing sounds such as gentle rainfall.) They are recommended for people with sleep issues to help reestablish healthy sleep cycles. Users often say they feel more energy upon waking.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is the combination of light with special drugs called photosensitizing agents. This effective treatment often eliminates the need for surgery. The agent is applied to the cancerous region or to a sun-damaged area that is precancerous, on the skin or through the vein. Once the cells absorb the agent, light is applied causing the drug to react with oxygen. This forms a chemical that kills the cells. “It will kill anything,” Hamblin says. “Its like the strongest beam of X-rays that you can imagine.”
Because it finds cells that are rapidly dividing, PDT may catch cancer that surgery doesn’t, says Jami Lyn Miller, a dermatologist at Vanderbilt Health in Nashville, Tenn. PDT is used to treat certain infections too.
This potential advantage in focus can help not only with accomplishing a task but also in learning new things. There’s a certain amount of boredom that comes with learning and younger workers may have greater difficulty devoting their energies to tedious tasks, says Harvard professor Jo DegGutis, coauthor of a study on sustained attention.
“Individuals in their 50’s and 60’s are quite adept at motivating themselves to stay focused,” DeGutis says. “This motivation attention can result in compared, with younger adults, less mind wandering.” Another way of looking at it: “We see the merits of sticking with a task until completion,” says Patty Ceglio, HR strategist for Cool Works, a site that connects many older workers with seasonal jobs.
Bob McCann sees this dynamic play out in his job restoring furniture at Iron Gate Antiques in Bluemont, VA. “Sometimes I’ll work for five hours nonstop,” he says. He attributes his ability to concentrate in part to a 26 year career in the Marines. “One of the first things they teach you is attention to detail.”
“I get a lot of emails, so I will take breaks and check on it rather than have it beeping and chirping at me every 10 to 15 minutes,” he says. Those distractions, he’s found, affect younger workers more than older workers. “The younger kids that I’ve worked with got the attention span of an ant,” says McCann, who also has worked as an executive at a technology company. “They can’t focus, because they’re jumping between things. You can’t be successful if your nose is stuck in your phone all day.”
Slower Processing, Fewer Filters:
This doesn’t mean that older adults have all the mental advantages. The processing speed of our brain starts to decline at an early age, around 24, according to a study at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. And with processing decline comes a diminishing ability to switch from one task to another or manage interruptions. Older adults also struggle to filter out irrelevant information, Gazzaley says, which is why conversations are often challenging in a busy restaurant. But while distractions may be difficult on the brain, focused activity, whether it’s working, gardening, volunteering or going to the gym, can have the opposite effect. In a study by researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Alabama, older adults who stayed busy outperformed this less-occupied counterparts on cognitive tests.
Despite his job as a computer science professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Cal Newport lives a mostly analog life. He reads print newspapers. He turns off his computer at 5:00pm and doesn’t have social media accounts. By blocking digital distractions, Newport has found time to write four books, earn his PhD, write numerous peer-reviewed academic papers and spend summer evenings listening to baseball games on the radio. “A life defined by fragmented attention,” he says, “can produce exhaustion and anxiety.”
A Distracted Future:
That ability to perform deep work, focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, will become an important job skill, Newport says. People also seem happier when performing deep work, he says, writing an important report or creating something with depth, as opposed to a task like answering emails.
“In my experience, people in their 50’s and 60’s often regain a deep-work ability faster than younger people,” he says. “The big difference is that if you’re older, you spend most of your life without the level of intense and constant distraction, something most young people have never experienced.”
But in the coming years, the demands on our attention span will likely grow, as technology enters more of our lives, from virtual reality to smart appliances.
“I think the more you primarily consume tiny bits of information, the harder it gets to consume larger pieces of information,” says Wu, who attributes the problem to attention-hungry advertising models. “No one is making money when you’re playing with your grandchildren. The attention merchants want you clicking on pics of your grandchildren, because then they can advertise it.”
Avoiding this distraction future and saving your brain ultimately starts with you. “It’s important to examine your life and ask, “Is this really what I want to do with my mind? And with my time? Will it all just get frittered away?” Wu says. “If you want to take control of your life and your mind, this is where it starts.”
Six ways to regain your focus:
- Grab a good novel
- Play an instrument
- Work in the morning
- Learn a language
- Chew gum
- Volunteer your time
Thank you, Christina Ianzito for this wonderful article!