Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In women, future dementia shows up in the eyes first - maybe early enough to do something about it

April is women's eye health and safety month.  That makes the results of a new study  reported in the March 14, 2012, online issue of Neurology timely because the results have important implications for women over age 65.

Retinopathy, a disease of the blood vessels in the retina (which as at the back of the eye) was found to be an important marker for the later development of dementia in women who are 65 and older. Even mild retinopathy in women in this age group could be a marker of cognitive decline and related vascular changes in the brain, according to the study.

Retinopathy is usually caused by Type II diabetes or hypertension.

The study's results suggest that retinopathy may be useful as a clinical tool if it can be shown to be an early marker related to neurologic outcomes. If retinopathy is detected early enough, there may be room for the patient to make lifestyle changes or participate in medical interventions that can slow the onset of cognitive decline.  As with many diseases, early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference in quality of life.

It seems that brain health is in the eye of the beholder.  The study is an other example of why eye exams by an optometrist (which routinely include an examination of the blood vessels in the retina) are one of the best things you can do for your overall health.  Not only can they detect markers of future cognitive decline, eye exams can diagnose, diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, cancer and other diseases that show up first int he eyes.  In fact, eye exams are often the first to detect chronic diseases.

While the study discussed above involves changes in the physiology of the eye as an early marker of cognitive decline, other studies have shown a connection between uncorrected visual impairments and cognitive decline.  The latter studies seem to indicate that older people who lack proper visual stimulation are more prone to cognitive diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.  Increasingly, science is making the link between vision and eye health on the one hand and brain health on the other.  That's why it's important to see the optometrists regularly as we age.