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Minding our Elders: Can weather and lunar activity affect people living with dementia?

Author Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders by Ann Arbor Miller, Photograph was taken on Jan. 18, 2011, in Fargo, N.D.

Dear Carol:

My mother lives in an assisted living facility. She has arthritic pain and is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, but she usually does well with the support that she has.

When I visited her last Saturday evening she seemed upset and confused, and she told me that she didn't feel well. I suggested that she rest and reminded her that I'd see her in the chapel the next day for services.

The next morning it seemed like a lot of the residents in the chapel were disgruntled, including Mom, who hadn't improved overnight. We'd had a huge air pressure change in the last day, and I began to wonder if weather causing problems with health is myth or fact. I even mentioned it to one of the nurses after I escorted Mom back to the common room. The nurse nodded her head and said, "Oh, yes. We sure see it here." She said that a full moon affects the residents, too. Now I'm beginning to wonder if there is something to this idea. What do you think? Jen

Dear Jen:

Your question is the first that I've received on this topic, so thank you for bringing up something others may have wondered about.

Legend has it that before barometers were invented sailors depended on their older mates with arthritic joints to give them warning of an approaching storm. Much more recently, many of us can remember our grandparents predicting coming rain because of aching joints, and they were most often right.

Now, scientific studies are showing that pressure changes can affect not only arthritic pain, but trigger migraines and influence many other illnesses, including asthma. The website has a good article on this topic. Whether the effect of barometric changes manifests as restlessness or outright pain, caregivers shouldn't be surprised if their loved one shows some agitation or even aggression if the discomfort is not treated.

Light also could factor in. Even people who are rarely depressed can feel down after a long period with no sunshine, and some people suffer from a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Therapy lights are commonly prescribed to treat SAD. Additionally, adjusting the type of environmental lighting has helped many people manage sundowning (sundowners syndrome) in people with Alzheimer's.

As for the full moon affect, people who work in nursing homes and other facilities will almost always say that a full moon makes a difference in their residents' behavior. Science hasn't been quick to back that up but after a superficial web search I did find this paper presented in 2002 by Alan Beck of Purdue University. The paper, titled The Lunar Influence on Behaviors in Individuals with Alzheimer's Disease, states that "The rate of occurrence of the behaviors [in study participants] ranged from two to five times greater during the full moon period versus the other four periods (ADL 3 times; Wandering 2 times; Anxiety 2 times; Physical Aggression 5 times; verbal confrontation 3 times).

"Many people of all ages have a sense of ill ease when storms approach. Even animals often act differently. Considering this, when people are already confused because of dementia, it shouldn't be surprising if they are extra sensitive to environmental changes.

Caregivers — whether family members or professionals — would probably benefit from having more scientific studies conducted on these issues if only to validate what they see on a regular basis.

Knowing that a situation exists doesn't stop it from happening, but this knowledge may encourage caregivers to take proactive steps. These steps are especially important when an individual can't verbally express discomfort. Thanks again for bringing up this interesting topic.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at