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How your eyes can say if you'll have memory problems in later life

A new study has pinpointed how changes in the blood vessels in your eyes could point to problems later.

Image: Shutterstock/Irina Bg

A NEW STUDY has said that people whose eyes show small changes in blood vessels at age 60 are far more likely to have developed thinking and memory problems by age 80, than people with healthy eyes.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, conducted a study involving 12,317 participants who took tests of memory and thinking, again six years later and then again 20 years later.

They used a special retina camera to take photos of the back of the participants’ eyes about three years after the start of the study. Of the participants, 621 were found to have mild to severe retinopathy – damage to the retina, caused by abnormal blood flow.

Study author Jennifer A Deal said: “Problems with the small blood vessels in the brain are likely as important a factor in cognitive decline as problems with larger arteries, but we don’t have the ability to take pictures of these small vessels with brain imaging.

Because the blood vessels in the eye and the brain are so similar anatomically, we hypothesised that looking at the blood vessels in the eye would help us understand what was happening in the brain.

It was found that people with moderate to severe retinopathy were more likely to have bigger drops in their performance in the memory and thinking tests over time than people with healthy eyes.

For the people with moderate to severe damage, their average scores on the tests declined by 1.22 standard deviation units over 20 years, compared to a decline of 0.91 standard deviation units for people with healthy eyes.

When adjustments were made for those who had missed some of the tests, the researchers found that the difference between the two groups was equal to 0.57 standard deviation units.

Deal added: “To put this in perspective, a previous study using the same methods found that the effect of diabetes on cognitive decline was equal to 0.21 standard deviation units.

“If our study results can be confirmed, differences in retinal integrity could provide reasonable estimates of how much small blood vessel damage in the brain is contributing to cognitive decline.”

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Sean Murray

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