Despite the advances made in the last hundred years in the area of neuroscience, the human brain still contains vast mysteries that scientists and doctors work on solving every day. One recent study at the University of Washington uncovered a possible—and surprising—link between the eyes and the mind – namely, that adults who have had cataract surgery have a lower chance of developing dementia.
In this just-published Seattle Times article, staff reporter Elise Takahama takes us on a deep dive into the study, its surprising findings, and the possible ramifications. We bring it to you here at AgingOptions blog with the hopes that it will inspire interest in what is still possible in the world of human health.
Potential Hope for a Devastating Disease
One of the greatest tragedies of memory loss disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is that there are currently no known treatment options or preventatives. While some anecdotal methods get passed around—like “exercising your brain” with puzzles and games—and doctors have long linked general nutrition and physical health with preventing dementia, no failsafe methods exist to keep dementia at bay. This fact makes the UW’s study of particular interest to researchers.
The large-scale study uses data from over 5,000 volunteers 65+ years old, who were evaluated every two years for their cognitive abilities. The study found that adults who had cataract surgery—compared to those who had not—had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of developing dementia in the ten years after their operation. These findings lead researchers to think that there could be some hope in cracking the “case” of memory loss disorders and finding new ways to combat them.
Genetic Risk Factors Connect Vision and Memory Loss
For a long time, researchers have known that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is largely genetically determined. But it may be surprising to learn that earlier studies also showed a link between eye health and memory loss disorders. Sufferers of macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and other eye problems have a risk of developing memory loss that is equal to someone with the genetic markers for the disease. The similarities are profound, and they inspired the study at the UW.
Takahama breaks down the results of the study of 5,500 older adults: “Of 3,038 adults over 65 years old with cataracts or glaucoma, 853 developed dementia. Of that group, 504 cases occurred before or without cataract surgery, while 320 occurred after surgery.” Interestingly enough, glaucoma surgery did not have a significant association with dementia risk. And since glaucoma surgery doesn’t restore vision—and cataract surgery does—the researchers discovered that visual function is the key to diminishing memory loss risk.
Researchers Hypothesize Link Between Brain and Eye Health
The researchers hypothesized that the quality of sensory input entering the brain through the eye can have a significant effect on the health of the brain. So, as we age and cataracts cause our eyes to cloud, it puts us at risk for lower quality visual input and therefore lower brain function.
Takahama quotes lead researcher Dr. Cecilia Lee as she explains, “We’re born with a crystal clear lens. As we age, the lens becomes yellow and cloudy. […] Because the lens becomes yellow, it’s almost like you’re wearing yellow sunglasses all the time. Those with cataracts often experience blurry vision, have difficulty seeing sharp colors, see halos around bright lights and can’t drive at night. So, a brain that’s not getting enough visual stimuli might be at a higher risk of developing dementia because it’s losing those neuronic connections.”
Better Quality Light Associated with Cognition
The researchers also theorize that cataract surgery improves the quality of light that people receive. This is called “blue light”, which has the potential to regulate our sleep cycles and improve our ability to think clearly. When you have cataracts, they specifically block out this blue light, but surgery repairs the eye’s ability to pick up this type of light once again.
Along with the physical changes, improved vision has a pronounced effect on a person’s emotional state, too. Those with improved vision are often able to be more social, to get out and meet people, to enjoy their surroundings and get exercise. All of these factors help to prevent memory loss disorders. “When your cataracts are gone, your vision improves immediately and you’re able to interact with this world better,” Lee says.
Results are Encouraging, but Questions Still Remain
While the study is definitely promising, researchers still have a way to go before they can make any definitive statements about what this all means practically. The study was largely observational, so further investigation is required.
Lee states that she would like to explore the role of race and ethnicity in these findings, since the majority of the participants were white. The volunteers were all members of medical group Kaiser Permanente, which implies a certain socioeconomic group. To be more conclusive, the study would need to include different groups of people.
Results Could Spell Hope for Dementia Treatment
One of the massive questions hanging in the air for researchers is: can cataract surgery improve cognition in someone who already has a memory loss disorder? At the moment this is unknown, but the implications could be massive.
Regardless, the results were already an encouraging and inspiring surprise to Lee and the UW team. Lee says, “There’s really no known treatment or preventive method against dementia right now. I would say that even 10 percent reduction is a huge result, but we definitely need more studies to validate our findings.” Because of these results, more studies are sure to follow. And as they do, we could be on the cusp of lowering the risk of one of the most emotionally devastating diseases currently experienced by aging adults.
Lee says it best: “There’s a tremendous amount of information we can get with noninvasive evaluation of the eye. […] People have said for many years that eyes are the windows to the brain or the soul. They really are.”
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(originally reported at www.seattletimes.com)