Your Eyes May Signal Your Risk for Stroke, Dementia

By Amy Norton
HealthDay reporter

THURSDAY, March 11, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Your eyes can be a window to your brain health, a new study says.

Researchers found that older people with ocular retinopathy had an increased risk of stroke, as well as possible symptoms of dementia. And on average, they died earlier than people their age without eye disease.

Retinopathy refers to a disease of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. It is often caused by diabetes or high blood pressure, both of which can damage the small blood vessels supplying the retina.

Retinopathy can cause vision changes, such as difficulty reading or seeing distant objects. In the later stages, damaged blood vessels can leak and cause visual disturbances such as dark spots or spider web-shaped streaks, according to the US National Eye Institute (NEI).

Studies have linked more severe retinopathy to a higher risk of stroke – possibly because both involve diseased blood vessels.


In the new study, researchers found that people with signs of retinopathy were twice as likely to report a history of stroke as those who had no signs of eye disease. Likewise, they were 70% more likely to report memory problems – a potential indicator of dementia.

Over the next decade, people with the most severe retinopathy faced a two to three times higher risk of death.

It’s not clear whether retinopathy actually predicts future stroke or memory problems, said lead researcher Dr. Michelle Lin, assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

Study participants were asked about a history of stroke and memory problems at the same time they were assessed for retinopathy. It’s unclear which conditions came first, Lin said.

The next step, she added, is to follow patients with retinopathy over time, to see if the condition predicts a higher risk of stroke – and if retinopathy detection makes a difference. in this risk.

Lin will present the results at the American Stroke Association’s annual meeting, which will be held virtually March 17-19. Studies reported at meetings are generally considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.


The results are based on more than 5,500 American adults who participated in an ongoing government health study. All underwent retinal scans for retinopathy.

Almost 700 had the eye disease, while 289 had a history of stroke and about 600 reported memory problems.

On average, people with retinopathy had an increased risk of stroke and memory problems – even after age, diabetes and high blood pressure were taken into account.

“It seems like there is something about retinopathy itself,” Lin said. Simply put, eye disease can provide insight into what is going on in the blood vessels of the brain.

“It’s really true that the eye is the window to the brain,” she says.

Lin encouraged people with retinopathy to work with their doctors to control their risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart disease. It means bringing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol under control.

These measures are also essential in limiting vision loss due to retinopathy. Beyond that, injectable drugs and laser surgery are options for more severe cases, according to the NEI.


The findings support adding retinopathy to the list of factors doctors consider when assessing patients’ stroke risk, according to Daniel Lackland, a volunteer expert with the AVC association.

In part, that’s because detecting retinopathy is fairly straightforward, said Lackland, who is also a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina Medicine.

“And then we can work on strategies to prevent a stroke, if a person seems to be at high risk,” Lackland noted.

If people are already being treated for conditions like high blood pressure, would a diagnosis of retinopathy make any difference? Maybe not, although Lin said patients could be screened for memory impairment, or possibly referred for brain MRI to look for tissue damage or problems with the blood vessels.

On the flip side, Lin said, people with cardiovascular risk factors should see an ophthalmologist to check their eye health.

More information

The National Eye Institute in the United States has more on retinopathy.

SOURCES: Michelle Lin, MD, assistant professor, neurology, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida; Daniel Lackland, DrPh, Professor of Epidemiology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, and Volunteer Expert, American Stroke Association; American Stroke Association Virtual Annual Meeting, March 17-19, 2021

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