This Common Eye Problem Makes Your Dementia Risk Soar, Studies Warn
Getting treatment can help improve your odds.
Your eyes may be the windows to your soul—but they can also offer a glimpse into the state of your health. Specific vision problems can signal underlying issues, and recent study found that troubles with your eyes may provide important clues to your brain health. One eye condition in particular may accelerate cognitive decline, putting you at greater risk of developing dementia—and since an early diagnosis will enable you to seek medical treatment sooner, recognizing the signs is critical. Read on to find out which changes with your eyes to look out for, and when to visit your doctor for a screening.
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Your eye and brain health are connected.
According to a 2018 study published in JAMA Opthalmology, impaired vision as you age is associated with declining cognitive function. In addition, the study found that poor sight in older adults may signal future neurodegeneration. The researchers concluded that "maintaining good vision may be an important interventional strategy for mitigating age-related cognitive decline."
Dementia—a neurodegenerative disease characterized by the loss of cognitive function such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning—can wreak havoc on your daily life and activities. Approximately one-third of people ages 85 and older have some form of dementia, and common symptoms include problems with attention, communication, judgment, and problem-solving, as well as memory loss.
"Going to the eye doctor is very important, as it will help diagnose typical and atypical vision changes at every life stage," advises Nadia Virani, OD, an optometrist at Kleiman Evangelista Eye Centers of Texas. "An early ocular health diagnosis can lead to timely treatment and help prevent amplification of dementia symptoms."
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More than half of people over age 80 have cataracts.
A cataract is a cloudy area in the lens of your eye, and is a normal part of the aging process. "A cataract occurs when the crystalline lens in the eye becomes cloudy," explains Karen Squier, OD, MS, FAAO, an associate professor at the Southern College of Optometry. "There are many causes of cataracts, including advancing age, UV light, and trauma, to name a few. Additional risk factors for cataract development are smoking, alcohol use, and environmental issues such as poor air quality or pollution."
According to the National Eye Institute, more than half of Americans 80 or older have cataracts, or have had surgery to remove them.
Typical cataract symptoms include cloudy or blurry vision, glare, colors appearing faded, poor night vision, light sensitivity, halos around lights, and double vision. "Cataracts most often occur gradually with age [and] can feel like you're looking through a dusty window," explains Brian Boxer Wachler, MD, ophthalmologist and medical reviewer at All About Vision. "When a cataract is at the point of interfering with your daily activities, it's easily replaced by a clear artificial lens. This is a common surgery and generally a quick, outpatient procedure."
Poor vision impacts our health in numerous ways.
A 2021 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the link between cataracts and future cognitive decline in a cohort of 3,038 US adults aged 65 or older. The researchers found that participants who had cataracts removed had a 29 percent lower risk of developing dementia than those who didn't have the surgery.
The study authors hypothesized that this may be because poor vision can cause psychosocial difficulties, withdrawal from social interactions, and a reduction in activity or exercise—all factors that speed up neurodegeneration and contribute to the onset of dementia.
"Reasons for improving dementia screening scores for those who had cataract surgery were that the improved vision experienced after surgery was related to increased visual abilities, which allowed for improved participation in cognitive activities, such as reading and increased social engagement," explains Squier. "Other reasons are an increase of light absorbed by the retina that may play a part in equalizing circadian rhythms, which may also impact dementia development."
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Book an appointment with your optometrist if you have cataracts.
It's essential to seek treatment for cataracts as early as possible—not only to lower your risk of dementia, but to improve your overall quality of life.
"Everyone should have regular eye exams at least once every two years," recommends Bhavin Shah, OD, behavioral optometrist and cataract specialist at Central Vision Opticians. "However, if you're suffering from symptoms of reduced vision, difficulty reading, or seeing text or glare from headlights, then you should see your optometrist or eye doctor as soon as possible."
Impaired vision can enhance the disorientation, confusion, mobility issues, and risk of falls associated with dementia. If you're concerned about your eyesight and want to protect your brain health, visit a doctor or optometrist who can connect you with the appropriate specialists.