You may have heard the term circadian rhythm, but do you know what it means and how it affects us? Circadian rhythm is defined as the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in our environment. It is driven by the body’s biological clock and controls our sleep/wake cycle.

Exposure to natural and artificial light is vital to control our circadian rhythm. Studies show that you need to be exposed to at least 30 minutes of morning light to set your rhythm, followed by a gradual progression of light throughout the day with a natural color pattern.

As we age, we become more at risk for circadian rhythm disorders and vision disorders such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration, which affects our eyes’ ability to take in light from our environment. Dementia further affects vision by decreasing depth, motion, and color perception. A brain with dementia takes longer to process the environment, which may lead to visual hallucinations. Maximizing exposure to light and the natural day-to-night progression becomes extremely important.

Our Starr Memory Care Residence was specifically designed to support proper circadian rhythms. Large windows let morning light flood into the neighborhoods, and easily accessible courtyards ensure our residents receive exposure to natural sunlight. Lighting features in the common spaces are on a dimmable program, allowing the inside artificial light to mimic the progression of natural light throughout the day.

Similarly, each neighborhood has a reflection room, a relaxing space that offers aromatherapy, a comfortable massage chair, and a tunable light that changes colors to mimic the natural color pattern associated with the day-to-night light cycle. The cycle starts with bright blue morning light, which increases serotonin levels, and gradually warms and progresses to a warm orange evening tone, which increases melatonin levels. We can manually control this light to support a resident that is having difficulty with his or her sleep/wake cycle.

Most important are the programming features we use to support healthy circadian rhythms in our residents. Our 24-hour cycle notes peak times for physical activity, concentration, and creativity, and we arrange our flexible activity schedule according to this cycle.

There have been many studies over the years about how a disorder in our rhythm affects those with dementia, but the importance of supporting proper circadian rhythms was only formally recognized in 2017. A team of scientists was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their study indicating that a chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and our rhythm, as dictated by our inner timekeeper, is associated with increased risk of various diseases.

Health Services staff members Joe Devore and Judy Sarnowski teamed up with THW, the design firm for the Northwest Garden, to present at the annual LeadingAge Florida Convention in Orlando this summer. The topic was designing with light to support the circadian rhythm. The focus was the design and programming features of our very own Starr Memory Care Residence.

If you would like to learn more, the presentation from LeadingAge 2018 is available in the Family Conference and Resource Center located on the second floor in the administrative wing of the Northwest Garden.