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Simple eye test reveals brain health

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Retinopathy could signal later cognitive decline from brain vessel disease.

People who have damage to the small vessels in the eye were found in a study to have problems with memory and thinking. Research findings published in the online issue of Neurology links damage to the retina of the eye, or retinopathy, to brain disease

Study author Mary Haan, DrPH, MPH, of the University of California, San Francisco said in a press release, “This could be very useful if a simple eye screening could give us an early indication that people might be at risk of problems with their brain health and functioning.

The researchers tested 511 women whose average age was 69. Women who performed poorly on memory tests were also found to have small changes in the blood vessels of the eyes associated with retinopathy that had not yet caused any vision problems.

The results come from data included in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study and the Site Examination study, two ancillary studies of the Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trial of Hormone Therapy.

Among the 511 women tested, 39 were diagnosed with retinopathy. Specifically, they had more difficulty remembering words 5 minutes after hearing them. They also had more damage in the blood vessels of the brain in addition to thickening in the white matter tacks of the brain that transmit signals.

Eye exam could reveal other diseases

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What the study means is that it pays to get your eye exam. The researchers also suggest changes in the retina of the eye could signal other diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure before symptoms develop.

Checking the health of the blood vessels that supply the retina of the eye regularly can allow patients to know when lifestyle interventions or medications are needed to prevent other chronic illnesses.

“Lots of people who are pre-diabetic or pre-hypertensive develop retinopathy,” said the lead author of the Haan in a press release. “Early intervention might reduce the progression to full onset diabetes or hypertension.”

Hahn also said the women did not have brain atrophy which can signal early Alzheimer’s disease. The finding means retinopathy is a marker of disease of the brain’s blood vessels.

In a commentary to the study, published March 14, 2012 in the online edition of the journal Neurology,Rebecca F. Gottesman, MD, PhD, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, and Ge Li, MD, PhD, from University of Washington PhD, say this study "adds to the growing evidence of a causal association of small vessel disease and cognition, but most importantly, it further validates retinopathy as an early marker for brain small vessel disease in living persons."

A simple eye test that is relatively inexpensive can reveal much about brain health, validated in this study. Small changes in the blood vessels that supply the retina of the eye, known as retinopathy, were associated with poor memory in the women who participated in the investigation.

Neurology. 2012;78:936-937, 942-949. Abstract Editorial
"Cognitive function and retinal and ischemic brain changes
The Women's Health Initiative
March 12, 2012
M. Haan, et al
doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31824d9655

Updated April 17, 2014



My mother had a small stroke in her right eye and cannot see from that eye. This was about 6 years ago. 4years ago she was diagnosed with dementia. Your article makes sense.
I am sorry Nivia. That is a difficult thing to watch a parent endure. I rely on my eye doctor's opinion of my blood vessel health. I think it's important not to skip your eye exams!