Could your next eye test spot early signs of dementia?

30 August 2018
A simple eye test could help to identify early signs of degenerative illnesses such as dementia, according to new research.

When did you last have your eyes tested? For some people, the answer will be decades ago. For others, getting older will have meant declining eyesight and more frequent trips to the opticians.

Regular eye tests are important, and not just for making sure you're wearing the right glasses or contact lenses. Visits to the opticians can help to spot signs of age-related conditions such as cataracts and macular degeneration and, according to a new study, even dementia.

How can an eye test spot signs of dementia?

Research published in the JAMA Neurology journal and carried out by scientists from the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology found that routine eye tests may have the potential to identify early signs of degenerative illnesses such as dementia.

Some 32,000 patients had their retinas closely monitored as part of the study, with particular attention paid to their retinal nerve fibre layer (RNFL), which was possible due to optical coherence tomography (OCT) techniques.

All participants were aged between 40 and 69, and were also required to undergo assessments measuring their reaction times, reasoning and memory. 

It was found that having a thinner RNFL correlated in many cases with failing at least one of the tests. As a decline in each of the assessed metrics could signal the onset of dementia, the researchers believe that close analysis of the RNFL may point towards a person's risk of developing the degenerative disease.

Could this discovery provide hope for future generations?

There is currently no cure for dementia, and while certain lifestyle and genetic factors have been linked with the condition, much remains unknown about its onset and development. Therefore, any method of catching the illness early is extremely welcome, and could make it more likely to be treated successfully.

Lead author of the study Professor Paul Foster commented: "It is likely that treatments will be more effective in slowing or stopping dementia at earlier stages of the disease.

"Also, by targeting people in the earlier stages, it should be possible to design better clinical trials for treatments that make a real difference and improve people's lives."

It is believed that a thinning of the retina may reflect changes to the blood vessels in the brain, which may be a sign that dementia or a related condition such as Alzheimer's disease is developing.

Speaking to BBC News, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer's Research UK stated: "While a diagnosis of dementia will always rely on results from a number of different tests, further studies should look at how sensitive OCT could be at identifying those most at risk of cognitive decline in the general population."

OCT can form part of a relatively simple eye test, so the study highlights the importance of attending opticians' appointments regularly as you get older. If you're already a glasses wearer, your optician may offer sight check-ups for free, while discounts are available at many opticians for older people regardless. 

You may not be able to alter the thickness of your RNFL, but finding out that you have a thinner than average retina could encourage you to make lifestyle changes elsewhere that could potentially lower your risk of dementia. For example, keeping both physically and mentally active have been linked with reducing the likelihood of being diagnosed with the illness.

So, make sure you attend your next sight test appointment; it could have the potential to change the course of the rest of your life.

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