Alleviation of sleep maintenance insomnia with timed exposure to bright light

J Am Geriatr Soc. 1993 Aug;41(8):829-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.1993.tb06179.x.


Objective: Half of the population over 65 suffers from chronic sleep disturbance. As a consequence, almost 40% of hypnotic medications are prescribed to people over age 60. Yet, hypnotics are often of little benefit in this population. As such, an effective non-drug alternative could prove important in the management of age-related sleep maintenance insomnia. The current study sought to evaluate the efficacy of bright light exposure in the treatment of sleep maintenance insomnia.

Design: Following baseline sleep and circadian rhythms assessment, subjects with sleep-maintenance insomnia were treated with timed exposure to either bright white light or dim red light for 12 consecutive days. Sleep and circadian rhythms recordings were subsequently obtained and measures of sleep quality were compared to assess efficacy of the treatments.

Setting: Baseline and post-treatment sleep and circadian rhythms assessments took place in the Laboratory of Human Chronobiology, Department of Psychiatry, Cornell University Medical College. The treatment phase of the study was conducted in participants' homes.

Participants: Sixteen men and women between the ages of 62 and 81 years were studied. All subjects were free of hypnotic medication, and all had experienced sleep disturbance for at least 1 year prior to entering the study.

Results: Exposure to bright light resulted in substantial changes in sleep quality. Waking time within sleep was reduced by an hour, and sleep efficiency improved from 77.5% to 90%, without altering time spent in bed. Increased sleep time was in the form of Stage 2 sleep, REM sleep, and slow wave sleep. The effects were remarkably consistent across subjects.

Conclusions: The findings demonstrate the effectiveness of timed exposure to bright light in the treatment of age-related sleep maintenance insomnia. With further refinement of treatment regimens, this non-drug intervention may prove useful in a large proportion of sleep disturbed elderly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Body Temperature
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phototherapy / methods
  • Phototherapy / standards*
  • Polysomnography
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / physiopathology
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / therapy*
  • Sleep Stages
  • Sleep, REM
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness