Abnormalities in tiny branches of retinal blood vessels might serve as an early warning system for dementias associated with Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and other diseases, researchers report in the June issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.
In the study of more than 8,000 middle-aged people who had not suffered a stroke, those with impaired mental function were about three times more likely to have abnormalities in the retinal vessels, called arterioles.
"There has been a hypothesis for some time that some vascular cause other than the aging process itself was associated with Alzheimer's and stroke," says Tien Yin Wong, M.D., M.P.H. "This study shows that people with cognitive dementia are more likely to have pathological changes in the retinal vessels, which may be a reflection of similar pathological changes in the brain."
Retinal examination could potentially provide an inexpensive, noninvasive way to diagnose and evaluate vascular dementia in the general population, says Wong, a researcher and professor of ophthalmology at the Singapore National Eye Center and National University of Singapore.
Previous research by this group found that retinal abnormalities predict stroke independently of traditional risk factors. The study was funded in part by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.