Retinal Damage Linked to Cognitive Decline

US scientists have found that women with retinal damage are more likely to show signs of cognitive decline and vascular damage in the brain. The study is published in the journal Neurology.

Research led at the University of California studied 511 women with an average age of 69, who were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. The women all took cognitive tests to measure their thinking and memory skills once a year, for up to ten years. About four years into the study, the participants were given an eye exam to check for damage to the retina – damage to the tiny blood vessels in the eyes – and about four years later, the women underwent MRI scans to check for brain size and signs of vascular damage to the brain.

They found that 39 of the women showed signs of retinal damage, which was not severe enough to cause significant symptoms. Those with retinal damage had lower cognitive scores across the ten-year period, and had more areas of vascular damage in their brains.

Retinal damage is a known complication of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. The researchers believe retinal damage could be an early marker for declining brain health, and suggest that in the future, eye exams to check for this damage could be a useful tool for detecting potential problems.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“Accurate early detection of the cognitive decline that can be associated with dementia could unlock our ability to treat it. This small study offers clues for another possible route doctors could consider when monitoring for the signs of cognitive decline. Further, larger studies will need to determine how reliable it could be. As part of an approach to detection, a non-invasive eye test could be beneficial as a means for spotting signs of early cognitive decline.

“The study adds to mounting evidence linking vascular health to cognitive decline, and underlines the importance of looking after our hearts. It will be useful to see whether the people in this study went on to develop dementia.

“Numbers of people living with dementia are increasing rapidly and research offers our only hope of detection, treatment or prevention. In the face of this generation’s greatest health challenge, we must increase research funding now or we risk failing countless families who will be affected by dementia.”

This material has been published with the kind permission of Alzheimer Research UK.

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