Could an Eye Exam Reveal Your Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease?

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), “Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5.5 million Americans, most of them age 65 or older, may have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s disease ranks sixth as a leading cause of death in the United States. This figure may be significantly underreporting Alzheimer’s deaths due to people dying from dementia-related conditions, but the symptoms are often reported as the cause of death instead of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging nor is it a disease of old age. Approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s. 

To detect Alzheimer’s early on, doctors encourage an evaluation if any symptoms manifest. There are a variety of signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease such as memory loss that disrupts the usual flow of daily life or difficulty completing familiar tasks. This year, medical research has discovered the potential connection of common eye problems such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy to risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Doctor Albert Hofman, chair of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has cited that there is no apparent connection with cataracts and Alzheimer’s. The three eye conditions that Dr. Hofman has identified are all linked to cardiovascular disease.

How Can Eye Exams Be Used to Predict Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia in 2019 analyzed data drawn from the Adult Changes in Thought study. Study authors shared the following data about:

  •       People with age-related macular degeneration were 20% more likely to develop dementia compared with people who did not have the eye disease
  •       People with diabetic retinopathy were 44% more likely to develop dementia than those without that eye problem
  •       People in the study with a recent glaucoma diagnosis, who did not yet have glaucoma, had a 44% higher rate of dementia

These findings show there is a link between these three eye conditions and brain risks, but does this mean that an eye exam can tell you if you will develop Alzheimer’s in the future? And if you could detect Alzheimer’s early enough, could it be prevented? One day the answer may be “yes,” but for now, eye exams should be used to detect eye diseases that can be treated.

At this point in time, the only known way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease. Until there is more research and conclusive evidence, focusing on keeping healthy to prevent heart attacks or stroke may also aid in preventing Alzheimer’s disease.