Does Alzheimer’s Cause Vision Problems?

Depressed old woman in eyeglasses on ophthalmologist appointment, vision problemMy husband wore glasses. And he had Alzheimer’s. And he had a retinal tear that required a laser procedure, which was no fun.

My kids and I thought Morris’s vision was deteriorating because he couldn’t see objects, such as a drinking glass right in front of him. This went on for years. Sometimes he was afraid to walk, thinking he’d fall or run into something. But it wasn’t his vision. The problem was in his brain.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between sight loss and visual problems due to dementia. Often times, one condition can mask the other.

Here’s what I learned.

People with Alzheimer’s and other dementias have visual difficulties caused by what is happening in the brain. They can still have healthy eyes, or have vision that hasn’t changed significantly. Their perception problems are not due to how clearly they see, but to changes in the brain.

Some of these difficulties may indicate dementia. My husband had to deal with almost every one of these issues.

  • reading
  • recognizing people
  • coping with low light, bright light or both
  • finding objects
  • avoiding obstacles
  • recognizing food on the plate
  • seeing well even with glasses on

In Alzheimer’s dementia, there are five main areas of visual deficit that can affect perception.

(See the last section, below, for some ways to help with these issues.)

  • reduced ability to detect motion
  • reduced peripheral vision
  • loss of depth perception
  • difficulty recognizing colors, especially in the blue-violet range
  • reduced contrast sensitivity to gradients of color–trouble picking out objects that are surrounded by similar colors, i.e. finding the toilet in a bathroom where the floor, walls and toilet are all white

Alzheimer’s disease can be detected through an eye test

According to researchers, changes in your sight and smell may be the key to early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. A decreased sense of smell is an early clue. In the case of vision, people with Alzheimer’s have fewer blood vessels and less blood flow in the retina (back of the eye). The retinal nerve that comes out of the brain gets narrower and this can be detected by an eye test that uses a non-invasive scanning technique called OCTA (optical coherence tomography angiography).

Having a thinner retina can also cause blurry vision at first that may interfere with normal activity, making things to appear hazy or out of focus.

Results from two studies show that OCTA can see signs of Alzheimer’s disease in a matter of seconds. Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina compared the retinas of 39 people with Alzheimer’s, 37 people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), and 133 healthy people. The average age was 71.

The researchers excluded various people from the study, including people with non-Alzheimer’s dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration or poor vision.

They took scans looking at the tiny blood vessels in different parts of the retina, and then compared blood vessel density between the groups. They found that people with Alzheimer’s had fewer blood vessels and less blood flow in the retina than healthy controls and those with MCI, and that a specific layer of the retina was thinner. They also found that the small blood vessels in the retina are altered even in patients who have a family history of Alzheimer’s but have no symptoms.

Because the retina is connected to the brain by way of the optic nerve, researchers believe that the deterioration in the retina and its blood vessels may mirror the changes going on in the blood vessels and structures in the brain, thereby offering a window into the disease process.

Because genes play a significant role in how Alzheimer’s disease begins and progresses, another team of researchers from Sheba Medical Center in Israel examined 400 people who had a family history of the disease but showed no symptoms themselves. They compared their retina and brain scans with those who have no family history of Alzheimer’s.

They found that the inner layer of the retina is thinner in people with a family history. The brain scan showed that their hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s first affected by the disease, had already begun to shrink. Both factors, a thinner inner retina layer and smaller hippocampus, were associated with scoring worse on a cognitive function test.

The goal of this latest research is to find a quick, inexpensive way to detect Alzheimer’s at the earliest signs. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s is a currently a challenge. Some techniques can detect signs of the disease but are impractical for screening of millions people: Brain scans are expensive and spinal taps can be harmful. Instead, the disease is often diagnosed through memory tests or observing behavior changes. By the time these changes are noticed, the disease is advanced. Even though there is no cure, early diagnosis is critical as future treatments are likely to be most effective when given early. Early diagnosis would also give patients and their families time to plan for the future.

Regular eye exams are important

I wondered how the doctor could ascertain what Morris’s eye glass prescription was since Morris was unable to read the eye chart. The ophthalmologist assured me that they have their way of checking someone’s eyes without verbal feedback. The doctor adapts the test for the patient, and allows for more time. It is important, however, that someone who knows the patient well accompanies him/her.

People with dementia can have the typical causes of sight loss that many aging people have, including cataracts, macular degeneration, normal aging of the eye, and stroke.

Ways to help your patient with sight loss and dementia

  • Make sure their eyeglass prescription is current.
  • Clean the glasses often, and try to prevent loss or misplacement by attaching them to a strap, lanyard or chain.
  • Improve the lighting where the patient lives, and install automatic lights that come on at dusk.
  • Use contrasting colors to help the patient discern places and things, i.e. Serve colorful veggies (which are higher in antioxidants and vitamins) on a white plate. Put DO NOT ENTER signs on outside doors, if there is a risk your patient might wander, etc.
  • Play books on tape, or read to your patient if he/she is unable to read.
  • Focus on what your patient can do and is familiar with, and help him/her to have positive experiences.


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

High blood pressure is a risk for (MCI) mild cognitive impairment

Close up of digital monitor device with cuff showing high diastolic and systolic blood pressureDid you know that high blood pressure puts you at risk for developing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)? The problem is, MCI can eventually develop into dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

A recent study involving 9,400 adults that was published in JAMA (January 28, 19) indicates that you can reduce your risk of MCI by lowering your blood pressure.  Adults in their 50s or older with high blood pressure participated in a clinical trial led by scientists at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. The purpose of the trial was to evaluate the effect of blood pressure control on risk of dementia. The participants received either intensive blood pressure control or standard treatment.

Intensive control was used to bring systolic blood pressure below 120 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), while the purpose of standard treatment was to lower it to under 140 mm Hg. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts. It is the top number in a blood pressure measurement, as in 120 mm Hg over 70 mm Hg.

The results revealed that significantly fewer of those who received intensive blood pressure control went on to develop Mild Cognitive Impairment, compared with those on the standard treatment. The lead investigator Dr. Jeff D. Williamson said that “three years of lowering blood pressure not only dramatically helped the heart, but also helped the brain.”

However, the study did not show that intensive blood pressure control reduced the incidence of dementia. The authors suggested that low numbers and the study finishing earlier than planned could be reasons for this.

What is Mild Cognitive Impairment? 

MCI is a condition in which the individual has some loss of mental acuity, such as forgetting appointments, losing the flow of a conversation, and difficulties making decisions and keeping track of finances, as well as trouble with reasoning. The individual is still able to care for him or herself and live a fairly normal life.

Approximately 15 to 20 percent of people 65 and older have MCI. People living with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. But MCI doesn’t always lead to dementia. In some cases, MCI remains stable or resolves on its own. Some medications may result in symptoms of MCI, including forgetfulness or other memory issues.

There are no pharmaceutical drugs approved in the U.S. for the treatment of MCI. However, the study discussed above, is a good indication that high blood pressure that is controlled through changes in lifestyle can help prevent MCI.

Why is high blood pressure dangerous?

It’s called the “silent killer” because it is insidious. It often has no warning signs or symptoms.

If your blood pressure is high it causes strain on the vessels carrying blood throughout your body. This can injure the vessels and lead to plaque buildup as a response to injury. Eventually, this can lead to narrow blood vessels and then clotting of passageways, which can cause damage to the heart and/or brain. High blood pressure ultimately increases your risk for getting heart disease, kidney disease, dementia, and for having a stroke.

Taking Your Blood Pressure

When your doctor takes your blood pressure, he/she is measuring the pressure in your arteries as your heart pumps. The heart contracts and relaxes during each heartbeat. When it contracts, the blood is being pumped out of the two ventricles (chambers) and your blood pressure goes up. Systolic pressure (the top number in the blood pressure reading) is the peak reading of the pressure produced by this contraction.

When the heart relaxes, blood fills the ventricles and your blood pressure goes down. The diastolic pressure (the bottom number in the blood pressure reading) measures the pressure between the beats as the heart relaxes.

What’s normal blood pressure?

High blood pressure used to be considered 140/90 or higher.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (a division of the Institutes of Health), normal blood pressure is now considered to be lower than 120/80 according to the guidelines released in November 2017.

The guidelines state that for BP above 115/75, every rise of 20/10 mm Hg doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease. Since 2017, the American Heart Association has advised that people with high BP should receive treatment at 130/80 rather than 140/90.

In the new guidelines, the AHA also recommends that doctors only prescribe medication in cases of a previous heart attack or stroke, or in the presence of risk factors such as: age, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. Rather, at the earlier stages of hypertension, another word for high blood pressure, patients should make lifestyle changes. Here are a number of ways to do that:

10 Ways to support healthy blood pressure and prevent MCI

  1. Eat a nutritious, high-fiber, low-fat heart healthy diet. Learn about the MIND diet.
  2. Beware of your intake of sodium.
  3. Include foods high in phytonutrients—fruits and veggies.
  4. Take nutritional supplements proven to support a healthy heart: magnesium, potassium, B vitamin complex, vitamin D3, CoQ10, Grape seed extract, Resveratrol, Quercetin.
  5. Avoid decongestants if possible. These drugs can raise blood pressure.
  6. Practice a stress reduction technique such as yoga or meditation.
  7. At the minimum, take a walk 3-4 times a week.
  8. Stop smoking and reduce consumption of alcohol.
  9. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water every day.
  10. If you snore, have sleeping problems, or are sleepy during the day, discuss sleep apnea with your physician.

Give yourself the gift of peace and get plenty of rest and sleep.

Happy Holidays!


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.