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Illuminating the Subject of Better Home Lighting

Good lighting can make all the difference for your eyes when it comes to comfort, performance and safety

By Barbra Williams Cosentino

Two years after successful cataract surgery, I still have some special lighting needs. I need bright light to read and do crafts and when trying to decode the instructions on the medication bottles that even my millennial niece can't read without squinting.

A close up of a hanging pendant lamp. Next Avenue, home lighting, vision, lighting for older people

As we age, our vision changes, which impacts the kind of lighting needed to see clearly.

Deciding to treat myself to a new lamp or two, I googled "Lighting for Older People," and couldn't believe the number of sites that popped up.

"No matter what miracles we can perform, no sixty-year-old is ever going to see as clearly as a twenty-year-old."

The variety of lightbulbs, lighting fixtures and lamps was mind-boggling and it was difficult to understand the terminology, let alone figure out what I should buy. Ambient lighting versus task lighting? What are lumens? And LED (light emitting diodes?) – sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. I needed help to wend my way through the chaos.

"No matter what miracles we can perform, no sixty-year-old is ever going to see as clearly as a twenty-year old," my ophthalmologist told me as I was approaching that milestone birthday.

In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health and other sources, people in their sixties need three times more ambient (overall) light for comfortable reading than people in their twenties.

Discounting the presence of eye disorders such as glaucoma or macular degeneration, here are five normal aging changes in the eyes:

1. Presbyopia – the lens inside the eye becomes more rigid and begins to lose its ability to change shape, affecting visual clarity and leading to a gradual loss of the eye's ability to focus on nearby objects 

2. Normally clear lens may start to discolor, leading to poorer color perception and diminished ability to discriminate between similar colors 

3. Changes in the lenses and increased opacity in the cornea causes light to be scattered rather than focused precisely on the retina, leading to increased glare

4. The ciliary muscles (which control pupil size) weaken, causing the pupils to become smaller and to react more sluggishly to light

5. Decreased tear production can lead to dry, irritated eyes


Shedding Light on the Subject

Many of these changes can be mitigated by good lighting, which is important not only for visual comfort and performance, but also for safety. Poor lighting can increase the risk of falls or accidents. Many options are available for garages, basements and bathrooms, ranging from under-cabinet LED strips to motion sensors outside.

Inside, using three types of lights, a process called layering can help aging eyes to adjust to changing light levels and minimize glare:

Ambient lighting — overall illumination in a room

Task lighting — table/floor lamps with adjustable lighting levels in one area of a room, useful for reading, writing out checks (yes, some of us still do that!) or scrolling through Facebook

Accent lighting – to illuminate wall art or architectural features

Circadian rhythms (built-in "clocks" that regulate the timing of biological processes) are affected by lighting. Light levels that are equivalent to natural daylight can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

Blue light waves which come from certain types of light and backlit electronic screens on televisions, computers and mobile devices are energizing, making it difficult to fall asleep (no more middle of the night texting!). Exposure to white light (a combination of all shades in the color spectrum) during the day can boost alertness and mood.

But, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "While the field of vision science has a long history . . . we still remain largely in the dark about many aspects of the effects of light on the circadian clock."  

The Many Varieties of Light Bulbs

I spoke with Stephen Polancic, a lighting expert at Continental Lighting Corporation in Floral Park, N.Y. for assistance. He informed me that, when you consider differences in light bulb shapes (which include tubular, flame and compact fluorescent), bases (candelabra, mini screw, Edison screw) and sizes (A and B series, C-7/F series, MR series, Linestra), there are about 60 different types of lightbulbs. If Thomas Edison was alive, he'd be amazed to see how his invention has evolved over the years.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the most common types of bulbs are the following:

Incandescent – where a glass casing encloses a tungsten filament through which electricity passes to create light; it's the least energy-efficient type of bulb, but often used due to versatility.

Halogen  — it has small capsules inside the casing around the filament; they can become very hot.

Standard fluorescent — they are popular because of longevity, energy efficiency and low cost 

CFL (compact fluorescent light) – the smaller and curlier versions of standard fluorescent bulbs; energy efficient, often used in kitchens or garages

LED (light emitting diode) – semiconductors that convert electricity into light, becoming more popular than incandescent in spite of cost, because of their long life and energy saving qualities

Smart bulbs – a type of LED light bulb, which is Wi-Fi enabled and allows lights to be controlled using mobile devices or voice-activated devices such as Alexa and Google Assistant

If Thomas Edison was alive, he'd be amazed to see how his invention has evolved over the years.

Never use a bulb on a lamp or fixture whose wattage is higher than that recommended by the manufacturer. However, depending on what type of bulb you're using, you can get much more brightness for your buck and still be safe.

For example, a 100-watt incandescent bulb, (between 1450 -1700+ lumens) equals a 23-30 watt CFL bulb or a 14-20 watt LEDS. Wattage is a unit of measurement for electric power. The higher the wattage, the more energy is consumed.

Energy-saving LED bulbs, which provide the equivalent amount of light as an incandescent or fluorescent light, use much less electricity, have longer lifespans and can reduce your electric bill by as much as 80%. 

Lumens and watts measure different things. Lumens measure the total amount of light emitted by the bulb; watts measure the amount of power consumed by the bulb. Lumens, not watts, actually tell you how bright the bulb is and are often listed on the package along with wattage. 

There are several other factors to consider when you're deciding which bulb to use. Color temperature, which refers to the color of the light given off, is measured by a unit called Kelvins (K). The lower the Kelvin count, the warmer and yellower the light. Bulbs with higher Kelvin counts give off cooler and whiter light. 

Hopefully, your home is filled with many beautiful and useful objects that make life easier and more enjoyable. Maximizing the light that you live with is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

barbra consentino, writer
Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Queens, N.Y., and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting and mental health have appeared in the New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter and many other national and online publications. Read More
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