Get an Eye Exam for Better Brain Health

Each year in November, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America sponsors Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. During this observation month, people are urged to get a memory screening to detect any memory problems early on so they can take advantage of treatments at a time when these therapies can do the most good.

But when it comes to brain health, this isn’t the only screening people should get! A number of recent studies have called attention to the connection between vision loss and cognitive impairment. In 2019, Johns Hopkins Medicine researcher Bonnielin Swenor, Ph.D., released two studies showing that people with vision loss are at higher risk of memory, thinking and perception problems.

Swenor brings her own perspective to this research. At the age of 26, she was diagnosed with myopic macular degeneration, a condition that damaged her central vision, making it harder to read, to see people’s faces and to drive. This gives her better understanding of what patients are experiencing. “I see myself more as a patient than a researcher, representing people like me, and that’s a privilege I take seriously,” says Swenor. “In all situations—coming up with research ideas, asking questions in meetings and reviewing manuscripts—I get to offer a perspective as a patient.”

Swenor’s studies showed that patients who have difficulty seeing even with eyeglasses are at higher risk of cognitive problems. She also noted that some vulnerable populations lack access to vision care, which can seriously affect their ability to work and to live independently. Swenor and other experts point out that helping these patients access vision care would save the health care system a lot of money.

Another study, this one from the University of Miami, tried to better understand how vision loss and cognitive decline are related. We know that vision can be affected by changes in the brain. Researcher D. Diane Zheng noted that even if a person with Alzheimer’s disease has nothing wrong with their eyes, the disease itself can interfere with the brain’s ability to make sense of visual input. Yet, Zheng discovered, the effect vision loss has on the brain is more profound. “We found that the rate of worsening vision was associated with the rate of declining cognitive function, and that vision has a stronger influence on cognition than the other way around,” she explained.

How does vision loss lead to cognitive impairment? Research reveals five mechanisms:

  1. People with vision loss have more trouble getting the kinds of mental stimulation that support brain function.
  2. Impaired vision makes it harder to exercise and manage health conditions.
  3. Vision loss increases the risk of falls that might cause serious head injuries.
  4. People living with vision loss may become socially isolated—a situation that we know is bad for brain health.
  5. The challenges caused by vision problems can raise the level of damaging stress hormones in the brain; vision loss adds to “cognitive load,” defined here as the amount of effort required to make sense of the world around us and to operate in it.

We can’t prevent or treat all vision loss, but we can take steps to protect our eyesight, and to compensate for vision loss:

  • Schedule regular eye exams, as recommended by your eye care professional. Early detection of eye problems such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration or diabetic eye disease allows for treatments that can slow or even reverse vision problems.
  • If your doctor recommends cataract surgery, get it! A 2018 study showed that this procedure slows the progression of memory loss by 50%.
  • Throughout life, follow vision-protective lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, adequate exercise, not smoking and wearing sunglasses.
  • Even if some or all vision is lost, low-vision rehabilitation therapy, adaptive devices and home modifications can help patients adapt and remain mentally active and engaged.

The information in this article is not intended to replace your doctor’s advice. Follow the recommendations of your ophthalmologist or other vision care professional.

Source: IlluminAge with information from Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Miami