Do Our Eyes Hold The Secrets To Preventing Disease?

Photo: Marina Vitale

In a recent study, researchers found that small opacities covering blood vessels in the retina (called retinal amyloid plaque) are an indicator of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. These findings are pretty amazing, because caregivers, families, and patients could receive an earlier diagnosis and take action to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. In addition, there is currently no standard test to diagnose Alzheimer’s so looking at the eyes could be a major development in combating a disease that is becoming more prevalent every year.

How prevalent, you ask? Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and affects more than five million Americans. And that is a number that is expected to grow, in fact, it’s been estimated this number could exceed 15 million by the year 2050. Luckily, medicines that slow the progression of Alzheimer’s have improved in recent years and being able to identify Alzheimer’s at an earlier stage could slow memory loss and cognitive changes and extend patients’ life spans by years.

The eye-brain connection you should know about.

In Alzheimer's, a damaging plaque—called beta-amyloid—creates communication problems with neurons in the brain. Although the reason why beta-amyloid affects communication problems with neurons in the brain is unknown to researchers, they have found that buildup of the plaque in the retina mirrored brain pathology, particularly in the primary visual cortex (the part of the brain most responsible for visual processing).

Embryology, the specialty in medicine and biology that studies brain development, says that during child development, the eyes are formed from the brain tissue. So the correlation between eye and brain function should not be surprising.

The eyes are a window to the rest of our body.

The eyes can give us immense insight into the internal health of our bodies. And unlike examining brain tissue, examining eye tissue is much more affordable and noninvasive. Researchers discovered decades ago that monitoring eye health can identify, at an early stage, whether a patient is at-risk for a stroke. These researchers also found that deterioration of the blood vessels in the eye mirrored the deterioration of blood vessels in the rest of the body, increasing the risk of stroke. Similar to the Alzheimer’s study, the damage caused by plaque buildup in the retina mirrored the damage inflicted on the brain.

Perhaps what is most exciting about this study is that it helps us understand how to prevent Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place. The buildup of plaque in the retinal blood vessels mirrors plaque buildup in the brain. By taking proactive steps to reduce the plaque buildup in the retinal blood vessels, we can also reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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By protecting our eyes, we protect our health.

So, what do we know about reducing plaque in the retina? We know that a healthy diet is the best way to prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid. Certain nutrients are known to promote eye health and keep our retinas (and therefore our brains) healthy. These include beta-carotene; vitamins A, C, E, and B12; lutein; zeaxanthin; magnesium; selenium; omega-3 fish oil; and folic acid. There is also an increasing amount of research stressing the importance of improving dietary absorption in the microbiome using enzymes and probiotics.

Understanding the intricate connection between our eye health and overall health is becoming more and more important, especially as chronic conditions like Alzheimer's disease become more prevalent. Luckily, research in this areas is progressing at a rapid pace. The take home message? Our eyes really are a window to our health, so take good care of them!

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