Biologically tuned lighting slashes falls at senior care homes

Aug. 17, 2022
Residents are better rested and more alert under human-centric luminaires, according to a Harvard University study. To paraphrase: It’s the circadian, stupid!

It would hardly be news if a nursing home reduced the number of falls among residents by illuminating dark areas. Kind of a no-brainer: brighter lighting increases the chances that seniors, or anyone for that matter, will see and avoid hazards.

But that’s not exactly why the new LED luminaires at two Wisconsin care homes slashed the fall rate by 43% compared to two other homes.

Rather, according to a Harvard University study, residents were much steadier on their feet because the tunable circadian lighting facilitated better sleep and wake cycles, which in turn fostered alertness.

The Harvard team, along with researchers from the Cottage Grove, Wisc.-based Midwest Lighting Institute, analyzed data on falls at the 75-bed Maple Ridge Care Center in Spooner and the 74-bed Oak Ridge Care Center in Union Grove.

Both homes installed circadian lighting systems from MLI affiliate Energy Performance Lighting in common areas such a corridors, dining rooms, and activity spaces. The luminaires delivered blue-enriched spectra and higher intensities during the day, then reversed that in the evening, delivering blue-depleted light and lower intensities. That spectra/intensity combination generally mimics the dynamics of sunlight, thus providing a daily light pattern that is sympathetic to human circadian rhythms. Many studies have shown that not enough of the right light during the day, or too much of the wrong light at night, can disrupt peoples’ natural biological cycles, causing various health issues.

As a control, the researchers used conventional fluorescent lighting in two other Wisconsin care homes, the 50-bed Montello Care Center in Montello and the 38-bed Hope Health and Rehabilitation Center in Lomira.

As LEDs Magazine reported last month, while the LED-based system certainly saved energy as noted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s research team, the suspected health benefits had yet to be documented.

That has now changed.

“This study is the first of its kind to translate the known beneficial effects of tunable lighting on neurocognitive responses into a real-world setting and examine if changes in lighting spectrum and intensity throughout the day can reduce the risk of falls in the elderly,” said Dr. Shadab Rahman, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical school and an investigator in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. “We found that upgrading ambient lighting is a safe, effective, low-cost, low-burden preventative strategy to reduce fall risk in long-term care settings, one that has tremendous potential to save lives and improve patients’ health and wellbeing.”

Rahman has been deeply involved in studying the neurological impacts of lighting, presenting data on circadian impacts with shift workers at LEDs Magazine’s 2017 Lighting for Health and Wellbeing Conference. And during last year’s DOE Lighting R&D Workshop, he shared some intriguing statistics regarding the rate of falls in elder or long-term care facilities and how preventive measures that included dynamic lighting could both improve facilities’ bottom lines and the residents’ quality of life.

The State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services helped to fund the study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association (fee required to access full article).

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MARK HALPER  is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.