The results offer physicians a new way to detect those at higher risk of the degenerative disorder which causes memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline.
The new study, conducted by the Washington School of Medicine and published in the Alzheimer’s and Dementia journal says that degenerative eye diseases are linked to the disease.
It showed that glaucoma, maculopathy and diabetic retinopathy are all linked to the degenerative brain disease.
The study monitored the health of 3877 randomly selected participants all aged 65 or over. Throughout a five-year study period, they diagnosed nearly 800 of those monitored with Alzheimer’s.
The participants in the study did not have Alzheimer’s disease at the time of enrollment.
They were part of the Adult Changes in Thought database started in 1994 by Dr. Eric Larson, who is at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.
Crucially, the research showed that elderly people with maculopathy or retinopathy or glaucoma had a 40%-50% higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s than people with the same risk factors but without eye problems.
Other diseases that impair vision that are typical of old age, such as cataracts, were not related to the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Experts believe this is a sign that there is a common mechanism between dementia and retinal degeneration or the optic nerve.
Lead researcher Dr. Cecilia Lee, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the UW School of Medicine, said of the study: “We don’t mean people with these eye conditions will get Alzheimer’s disease.
“The main message from this study is that ophthalmologists should be more aware of the risks of developing dementia for people with these eye conditions and primary care doctors seeing patients with these eye conditions might be more careful on checking on possible dementia or memory loss.”
She said a better understanding of neurodegeneration in the eye and the brain could bring more success in diagnosing Alzheimer’s early and developing better treatments.
More than 46 million older adults are affected by dementia worldwide. 131.5 million cases are expected by 2050, the researchers claimed
Alzheimer’s is the most common dementia and discovering risk factors may lead to early detection and preventive measures.
Dr. Paul Crane, professor of medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, at the UW School of Medicine, highlighted the importance of the study’s findings: “What we found was not subtle. This study solidifies that there are mechanistic things we can learn from the brain by looking at the eye.”
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega