Eye Conditions May Provide Diagnostic Clues Regarding Alzheimer’s Risk

Unlike most diseases, there is not one test that can definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Although brain scans can help rule out other possible causes when abnormal symptoms develop, such as strokes or brain tumors, a single test, scan, or exam cannot detect whether or not a patient is living with Alzheimer’s.

However, researchers are beginning to discover new possible diagnostic avenues. After studying nearly 4,000 patients, a team of scientists recently discovered a link between degenerative eye diseases and Alzheimer’s. This discovery could offer physicians a new way to better detect patients who are at a higher risk of neurodegenerative conditions.

The Relationship Between Degenerative Eye Diseases and Alzheimer’s

The is no cure for Alzheimer’s, making it difficult to treat. However, due to the nature of this disease, it is also challenging to diagnose. As researchers continue to search for more effective treatments, they are also focusing their attention on new screening tools.

This latest study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, offers a new potential avenue to detect those at higher risk. After studying 3,877 randomly selected patients, the researchers found a significant link between Alzheimer’s disease and three degenerative eye diseases.

These include age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and retinopathy. The researchers stated that their findings do not mean that people living with these conditions will develop Alzheimer’s. However, the team of researchers is encouraging ophthalmologists to be more aware of dementia risk factors. This includes people with these eye conditions.

Among those living with these eye conditions, it is also important for primary care doctors to be mindful of possible early warning signs associated with dementia and memory loss.

Please note: If you are experiencing abnormal symptoms and are concerned with how well you’re thinking, please consider the BrainTest® app. Easy to use, this screening tool can help you detect possible early warning signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive impairments.

More on these recent findings

All of the participants in this study were 65 years and older, and at the time of enrollment, did not have Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of the five-year study, 792 cases of Alzheimer’s were diagnosed. Of the patients living with one of the three degenerative eye conditions listed above, were at 40 percent to 50 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s in comparison to those without eye conditions.

Cataracts did not have an impact on Alzheimer’s risk. Although more research is required, these results are not subtle. As stated by Dr. Paul Crane, a professor of medicine at the UW School of medicine, “This study solidifies that there are mechanistic things we can learn from the brain by looking at the eye.”

After all, our eyes are an extension of our central nervous system. This may influence a new area of opportunity for researchers and physicians.

Related Research That Supports the Link Between the Eye and Brain Degeneration

Another recent study supports the above findings, as researchers from Queen’s University, Belfast found that the eye may act as a surrogate for neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. These findings were published in the Journal of Ophthalmic Research.

Once again, the researchers concluded that by looking at the eye, we may be able to better predict what is going on in the brain. Using ultra-widefield imaging technology, the researchers found that in association with Alzheimer’s, several changes seem to occur. This is particularly true in the peripheral retina.

Of these changes, it appears that people with Alzheimer’s showcase a higher than normal appearance of yellow ‘spots’ that can be seen on retinal images. Known as drusen, these spots are deposits of fat, minerals, and proteins.

These spots are normal in people over 40. However, an influx of these deposits (which may also increase in size) increase the risk of retinal degeneration. Another apparent change was the peripheral retinal blood circulation in Alzheimer’s patients. Impaired blood flow reduces oxygen and nutrient flow to the peripheral retina.

Not only could these recent findings potentially support the diagnostic process but also help physicians better monitor disease progression. Eye image is a quick and cost-effective technique that would benefit patients and physicians. In summary, researchers are not yet suggesting that eye imaging is currently a diagnostic tool. However, eye imaging could support the initial examination process and an earlier diagnosis. 

For more information on how the diagnostic process for Alzheimer’s is changing, please refer to the following article:

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

Comments (2)
  1. Nelson R Adamik

    Does “pigment dispersion syndrome” have any diagnostic relevance as an indicator of Alzheimer’s /Dementia? I have been diagnosed with it and this article hits home.

    1. Danielle Clarke

      Hi Nelson, currently, we do not have any information in our database regarding the diagnostic relevance, if any. If you do come across any research with more details on this topic, please feel free to share the information with us! Thank you.

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