One in 20 people suffer from clinical depression in this country, and the rate is significantly higher among seniors. It's higher still among senior women (women are twice as likely to be depressed as men). When you include the widespread prevalence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) this time of year, it's clear there's big public health problem out there. New research findings in the Netherlands show that bright light therapy (BLT) may be part of the answer. Call it a lightbulb moment in the treatment of depression.
The details: The study of depression and light therapy involved 89 people aged 60 and over. Half received three weeks of one-hour-a-day BLT. For comparison, the others were "treated" with a pale, not therapeutically significant light for the same duration. Treatment sessions occurred in the early morning each day. At the end of three weeks, those receiving BLT experienced significant improvements in mood, sleep quality, and stress levels, whereas the placebo group saw no changes.
What it means: The Dutch research confirms what several other studies of depression and light therapy have shown: Light therapy can have a profound effect on mood and sleep among those with clinical depression. Other studies have shown similar results among SAD sufferers and those with less-severe forms of depression. "Light therapy was actually first developed as a successful treatment for SAD," says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, psychologist, Rodale.com advisor, and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. "And it's also true that getting high-intensity light, whether indoors or out, is a great way for you to feel better, whether you're clinically depressed or not."
But back to the study, and the issue of depressed seniors specifically. The first question is, how do you know if an aging parent is depressed? "The classic hallmarks are frequent black moods, and lack of enjoyment in activities that used to be pleasurable," says Rossman. Other telltale signs:
If a parent or elder in your family is exhibiting any of these signs, suggest that he or she visit with the doctor. (You or a trusted caregiver may want to accompany the older relative on this visit, depending on his or her mental state and level of independence.)
"If light therapy is considered, realize that simply being outside on a bright sunny day for at least 30 minutes is a great way to get mood-enhancing light," says Rossman. "It's at least as good as sitting in front of a high-intensity light fixture." Sitting near a window or in a sunroom on a bright day is also helpful, but not as effective as being outdoors. "As long as the sun is shining, a daily walk might be the best bright light treatment of all," Rossman says, "because exercise is a known mood enhancer as well." If the day is cloudy, he suggests a walk plus indoor light treatment.
Other studies have shown that light therapy given at the same time each morning helped seniors to sleep better at night, which is an important factor in improving mood during the day. "This seems to be part of the effectiveness of consistently timed light therapy, that it helps people to maintain a regular sleep-wake rhythm," says Rossman.
If you or someone you know suffers from clinical or nonclinical depression, and regular outdoor time doesn't to enough or isn't practical, consider purchasing a therapy light. Several companies sell them, including The Sunbox Company (sunbox.com). Costs range from $125 to $500; most people do well with a lower-cost model, says Rossman.