How eye exams can help predict risk for Alzheimer's

By IVANHOE

SEATTLE, Wash. - Researchers at the University of Washington and Kaiser Permanente Washington tracked more than 3,000 people for nearly 30 years in a program called adult changes in thought, or ACT.

They discovered that people who developed one or more of three eye conditions had a greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. This finding could be a big step toward better diagnoses and treatment.

Eighty-six-year-old Lamartine McDowell has glaucoma and macular degeneration. Despite that, she is excited to learn about researchers finding a connection between age-related eye conditions and Alzheimer’s disease. 

“I think it’ a good idea. The more you can find out, the better!” McDowell said.

Cecilia Lee, MD, MS, lead researcher at the University of Washington, said, “We thought that by looking at conditions that happen in the aging eye, we might be able to learn what else is happening to the aging brain, specifically, Alzheimer’s disease.” 

Researchers found people who developed glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy or macular degeneration had a 40 to 50 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Lee says that this discovery may lead to a new paradigm for earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease in the future. 

“By noticing what’s happening in the eye, we’ll be able to predict who develops Alzheimer’s disease and potentially develop treatments that can target these patients,” stated Lee.

Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, vice president for research and healthcare innovation at Kaiser Permanente Washington has worked with Alzheimer’s disease patients for 40 years and says it’s critical to address the disease now. By 2050 more than 13 million Americans could have the disease.

Larson said, “It’s a very, very common condition, and unless we find ways to prevent it, delay it, or effectively treat it, we’re going to have a pandemic.” 

He hopes their discovery will broaden how researchers look at solving the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease. 

To check that the link between three eye conditions and Alzheimer’s disease was not just from age, researchers looked at cataracts. Cataracts were not a predictor of Alzheimer’s risk. Next, the team will try to figure out the exact connection between the eye conditions and Alzheimer’s disease.

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