Why so blue?

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

I've been in a fight with my computer monitor for the past couple of days. The screen was crisp and bright looking, but after a few hours I'd start getting a headache. I had been blaming that on a lack of coffee, until I started doing some research.

After reading a few articles about how the brightness of our screens can affect our sleep and vision, I realized I was ultimately doing more harm than good with how I had my monitor set. I've spent the last few days tweaking the brightness and contrast of my screen until I've found a setting that makes reading and writing on my computer far more gentle on my eyes.

It's easy to take light for granted, whether it's the light coming from our screens, overhead lighting, lamps or windows. It's there all the time, and we need it to see and do our jobs. But tuning in to how light affects us — and how we can change light to our benefit — is just as important.

Take for example this study presented last week at the International Stroke Conference in Houston. A team of Danish researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that changing the lighting system in a rehabilitation facility to use blue light helped ward off depression in patients recovering from stroke.

Blue-spectrum light is important to our body's internal clocks, researchers explained. But the main source of this light is sunshine, something that rehabilitation patients don't always get enough of from inside the facility. Blue light can also research patients from indoor lighting or television sets at the “wrong” times, throwing off that circadian rhythm.

The researchers found that after 14 days, a group of stroke rehab patients who stayed in a unit that used a blue light system were significantly less depressed upon discharge than a group treated in a unit equipped with standard lights.

The study backs up previous research that has shown blue light to increase memory, thinking skills and alertness, as well as improve sleep duration, agitation and depression among patients with dementia.

Stroke care experts interviewed by HealthDay said this latest research “reconfirmed the beneficial effect of blue-light therapy for depression well known to psychiatrists for many years,” and should be a sign that rehabilitation units should consider making blue “circadian” lighting the norm.

But the study goes beyond helping rehab patients — it's another block in the growing pile of evidence that illustrates the impact lighting can have on our mood and health.

So take a few moments today to assess how the lights in your life may be affecting your health. Flip your smart phone over to “night shift” mode, or do as I did and spend a few days tango-ing with the display settings on your computer. Chances are you eyes, and your overall health, will thank you.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.