Vision Problems Increase Risk of Dementia in Older Adults, New Study Finds

New Study Finds Link Between Vision Problems and Dementia Risk

A recent study published in JAMA Ophthalmology suggests that older adults with vision problems may be at a higher risk of developing dementia. Researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor analyzed data from the 2021 National Health and Aging Trends Study and found a correlation between various types of vision problems, such as distance acuity, near acuity, and contrast sensitivity, and a higher prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the American Optometric Association, distance acuity measures the clarity or sharpness of vision from 20 feet away and is typically assessed using a Snellen chart. Near acuity refers to the ability to see objects up close, while contrast sensitivity measures the ability to distinguish between an object and its background or differentiate between similar colors.

The study included data from 2,967 participants aged 71 and older. Lead study author, Dr. Olivia Killeen, a clinical lecturer for ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Michigan, stated that the researchers hypothesized a connection between visual impairment and dementia based on previous studies. She explained that the loss of visual stimulation could lead to withdrawal and less mental engagement, thereby increasing the risk of dementia.

The study’s findings emphasize the close relationship between eye health and brain health in older adults. The good news is that most vision problems are treatable. For example, cataracts, one of the main causes of visual impairment in older people, can be reversed through cataract surgery. Dr. Killeen suggests that treating vision problems may be a key factor in reducing the risk of dementia.

However, the study had some limitations. The researchers did not have detailed information on the specific causes of visual impairment, such as cataracts, glaucoma, or macular degeneration, and how they might be related to dementia. To measure the impact of treating vision problems on dementia, randomized controlled trials are needed.

Dr. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at Hackensack University Medical Center, agreed that there is a connection between sensory impairment and a higher risk of dementia. He emphasized the importance of mental stimulation in preserving brain health and suggested that routine eye care is crucial for early diagnosis and treatment of vision problems.

The study’s large sample size and use of objectively measured visual acuity make the results particularly compelling. Regular visual acuity checks can help optimize quality of life and protect against dementia, not just for older adults but for everyone. The adage “Use it or lose it” applies not only to physical health but also to cognitive health.

In conclusion, protecting and preventing vision problems is key to improving outcomes, both in terms of visual acuity and cognitive health. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends routine eye exams every one to two years for individuals aged 65 and older. Early detection and treatment of vision problems may play a significant role in reducing the risk of dementia. Additionally, eye exams have shown promise in detecting early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, allowing for timely intervention and management.