Health experts have long advised regular eye exams as part of an individual’s overall health maintenance efforts. This advice has always been doubly important for people over the age of 50, a time when eye diseases associated with aging often develop.
Now, there is a new reason to make sure you schedule annual eye exams. Recent scientific research has found that changes in a particular structure of the eye correlates with the development of protein plaques in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that causes mental decline and ultimate death from damaged brain structures.
Research on Alzheimer’s disease is ongoing, but already experts know a great deal about how it develops and the course of its progress. Studies on the brain have shown that Alzheimer’s patients develop collections of a protein called beta-amyloid in their brain structures.
These “plaques” of protein grow in clusters, causing disruptions in normal brain activity and signaling. As a result, the individuals begin to develop problems with memory, which may start out as minor forgetfulness, but eventually progresses to severe impairment, in which the person does not recognize family members and is unable to perform normal self-care activities. Falls, infections and the inability to swallow, which often leads to pneumonia, usually contribute to the patient’s death.
In the past, making clear diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease was difficult. The protein “knots” in the brain were characteristic of the disease could only be definitively identified after death, during an autopsy.
However, as MRI technology improved, brain scans became available that clearly showed when these clusters were beginning to form. Cerebral spinal fluid was also used to determine the onset of the disease.
As the research continued, it became evident that some of the vision changes Alzheimer’s patients experienced might also be an indicator of the disease. Scientists began looking for abnormalities in ocular structures that might give an early warning of the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Following this course of inquiry, they did find a number of measurable changes in the ganglion nerves of the retina and near the optic nerve of the eyes. These changes opened up a new avenue of finding the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
The reason why early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is so important is because current treatments for the disease are only effective in the early stages. These drugs can be successful in slowing the progress of symptoms of mental impairment.
However, once the disease is well established, and the mental impairment has become significant, the medications are no longer effective in preventing further decline. The limitations of these drugs makes it critical to identify patients in the early stages of the disease, in order to provide the treatment can help them live longer, more effective lives.
Earlier types of ocular diagnostic equipment were unable to provide the information needed to determine changes in the thickness of the retina that would indicate a risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Today, precision equipment is available that can provide measurements of the depth of ocular tissue, which provides this information easily and accurately.
This new ability means that your visits to the eye doctor can not only ensure that your eye doctor ensure clear vision for you, and the early detection of eye diseases, but also provides information about changes in your eyes that could indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s. You can then take this information to your primary care physician for further investigation and possible treatment.
This new information from the study indicates that regular eye exams can be even more important for sustaining health as you age. Eye exams not only detect the early signs of eye disease such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. The exams can also provide an early warning system for determining your risk for dementia.
Even if you have not had vision problems in the past, put a vision exam on your schedule as part of your efforts to maintain good health. This measure may help you to find the early signs of Alzheimer’s and to minimize the most damaging mental effects of this troubling disease.
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