As we age, some of the faculties that we take for granted begin to decline. Whether it's our physical range of motion or our vision, the simple reality is that our bodies are letting us know that we cannot perform like we used to when we were younger.
Now health researchers believe that the decline in our ability to see might actually be a linked to a larger overall problem. That is because conditions that affect our eyes might also be affecting the neural tissue in our brain, especially when it involves the blood vessels.
In the study in question, published in the journal Neurology, scientists followed over 500 women (511) for ten years. The average starting age of the women was 69 years. Each year they were administered a cognitive test that examined short term memory and thought processes. In the fourth year their vision was tested, and in the eighth year they received a brain scan.
What the researchers found was that women 65 years of age or older who had mild retinopathy were more likely to have vascular changes in the brain as well as a decline in cognitive ability, which would include thinking and memory skills. Retinopathy is a disease of the blood vessels in the retina that is usually associated with diabetes.
With the full group of test subjects, 7.6% (39) of the them were diagnosed with retinopathy, and on average, these same subjects scored worse on the related cognition tests. These same women also experienced more damage to the blood vessels in the brain, with 47% more ischemic lesions in the overall vasculature and 68% more lesions in the lobes of the gray matter. These lesions are believed to be caused by hypertension have been associated with vascular disease and stroke. Interestingly, there was no association seen between retinopathy and Alzheimer's disease.
The data suggests that a simple eye examination could be an initial screening mechanism to help predict future cognitive decline, thus allowing for early detection and intervention. This would be in the hopes of slowing or eliminating the progression to dementia. Furthermore, since retinopathy is often caused by type 2 diabetes or hypertension, an eye examination might help to diagnose the early stages of these diseases before they can be identified by clinical means. This would in turn allow for early intervention by medication or lifestyle choices at a time when they would be most effective.
If you have questions or concerns about your vision, talk to you doctor. For more information about retinopathy, visit the website for the National Eye Institute (NEI), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).