The Surprising Reason Aging Eyes Need Bright Sunlight

Fascinating new research says the eyes are key to much physical health


Last updated: February 21, 2012
blue eye - close-up view

Nearly everyone knows that aging eyes need brighter light to read or even see. Now it turns out that bright indoor light, or better yet, bright sunlight, helps the body regulate all kinds of internal mechanisms influencing overall health. Older adults' eyes have a role in things as seemingly-unrelated to them as memory and depression, reports Laurie Tarkan in The New York Times.

Here's why: As we get older, the eye's lens gradually yellows and the pupil narrows. So less sunlight reaches key cells in the retina that regulate the circadian rhythm system, the body's exquisite internal clock.

Circadian rhythms, Tarkan explains, are the cyclical hormonal and physiological processes that start up in the morning and wind down at night. They regulate the release of hormones like melatonin and cortisol. Disturbed circadian rhythms are thought to have a role in conditions ranging from memory loss and slowed reaction time to insomnia and depression. Sundown syndrome in people with Alzheimer's is thought, for example, to be connected to disrupted circadian rhythms. People with low melatonin are known to have a higher incidence of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

A team at Brown University discovered that the inner retina contains photoreceptor cells that communicate directly with the brain, and these are especially receptive to blue light on the light spectrum. But blue light is filtered by the aging eye -- by age 45 adults receive only half the light needed to fully stimulate the circadian rhythm system, by 55 you're down to getting only 37 percent of the blue light, and by age 75, you get only 17 percent.

Older adults are at even greater risk when they lead a sedentary, indoor life.

What can caregivers do? Researchers recommend purposeful exposure to outdoor bright sunlight to counter these effects. Skylights and bright indoor lighting help, they say. But artificial lights are 1,000 to 10,000 times dimmer than sunlight and deliver the wrong part of the spectrum, notes Patrician Turner, an ophthalmologist in Leawood, Kansas, who specializes in the aging eye.

Also, if you or a loved one had cataract surgery, fine out what type of lens was used. Replacing clouded lenses with clear intraocular lenses has been shown to reduce insomnia and improve reaction time. But it's important that the replacement lenses don't block blue light, as one third of them do -- an innovation that was intended to protect against macular degeneration (an unproven connection) that may have unintended consequences for the rest of the body's health, researchers say.

Image by Flickr user Look Into My Eyes, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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6 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

over 2 years ago

very interesting ......i have noticed that when i get sunshine i am much happier and energetic.....so i hope on a cheap flight for a couple of days during the irish winters and get my sunshine abroad ...makes sense


over 2 years ago

I bet there is an optimum amount of time we should spend in the sunlight. They say for Vitamin D we should have at least 15 minutes a day of direct sunlight. Maybe the same for eyes.....then use sunglasses if you have to out in the sunlight for lengthier periods of time?????


over 2 years ago

I agree with the need for sunlight but I have a friend who would says that having Macular Degeneration would not be good to try to absorb more sunlight. Can anyone speak to this?


over 2 years ago

I did not realize that the pupil narrows with age and lets less light in over the years. Fortunately, I spend a decent amount of time in the Southern California sun which keeps me smiling. But the more amazing thing for us 50+ year olds is how easily we can read small print without glasses if we have plenty of sunlight and how awfully difficult it is to see words while reading at night using artificial light.


over 2 years ago

Good question Mizkermit....since direct sunlight contributes to cataracts. Darned if we do and darned if we don't.


over 2 years ago

The question now is should we continue to wear sunglasses or ease back on them .


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