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Could Your Next Eye Exam Point to Alzheimer’s Disease?

One of the scariest parts of Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain illness, is how it can go undetected or misdiagnosed for a long time before symptoms worsen. However, a new study has found that changes in the eyes might be an indicator of getting Alzheimer’s.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia, and it affects nearly 6 million people in the United States alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is not a normal part of aging.

Dementia is a term for a group of symptoms that include memory loss and decline in cognitive function that may become so impaired as to interfere with daily life. While Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, there are overlapping conditions such as Parkinson’s disease that may complicate a diagnosis and any possible treatments for prolonged quality of life. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease remains a mystery. In some cases, there can be a genetic component for the disease, but the majority of cases do not have a clear reason behind them other than advanced age.

What the Study Found

The journal Ophthalmology Retina published the results of a study by Sharon Fekrat, an ophthalmologist, retinal surgeon at Duke University, and senior author of the study, recently. What she and other researchers found was that in people living with Alzheimer’s disease, the web of microscopic blood vessels at the back of the eye inside the retina was less dense or sparse. In people with healthy brains though, that web is dense.

“Alzheimer’s participants showed significantly reduced macular VD (vessel density), PD (perfusion density), and GC-IPL (macular ganglion cell-inner plexiform layer) thickness compared with MCI controls. Changes in the retinal microvasculature may mirror small vessel cerebrovascular changes in AD (Alzheimer’s disease),” the study concluded.

Or, as Dr. Fekrat told Futurity, “It’s possible that these changes in blood vessel density in the retina could mirror what’s going on in the tiny blood vessels in the brain, perhaps before we are able to detect any changes in cognition.”

 Dilraj S. Grewal, an ophthalmologist and also an author of the study told Futurity, “We know that there are changes that occur in the brain in the small blood vessels in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and because the retina is an extension of the brain, we wanted to investigate whether these changes could be detected in the retina using new technology.”

Other studies have found that people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease “are likely to have visual problems that have not been detected due to the developing dementia.”

Dr. Fekhart pointed out that with early detection, there is a chance of monitoring symptoms earlier to improve well-being and continue to investigate a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

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