Failing Vision Can Be Misdiagnosed as Brain Decline



A new study by the University of South Australia suggests millions of elderly people with vision problems like cataracts or age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are being misdiagnosed with cognitive decline.

What Are Cataracts and Macular Degeneration?

Cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are common causes of vision loss but do not affect cognitive function. Cataracts are a clouding of the eye lens and are the leading cause of vision loss in adults over 55. Over half of Americans will develop a cataract by age 75.

AMD affects five percent of Americans aged 65 and older. Although it does not cause blindness, it affects the ability to drive, read, cook and do everyday tasks.

Poor Vision or Cognitive Impairment?

Brain tests that use vision-dependent tasks could be giving false results in up to 25 percent of patients over 50 who have AMD or cataracts. Researchers from the University of South Australia studied 24 participants with normal vision and asked them to complete two cognitive exams. One exam included vision-dependent activities, and the other used verbal-based metrics.

When the participants used glasses to simulate AMD, they received much lower scores on brain tests involving reaction time tasks compared to when they were not wearing the glasses. The research team noted no difference with verbal fluency tests when participants used the simulation glasses.

“A mistaken score in cognitive tests could have devastating ramifications, leading to unnecessary changes to a person's living, working, financial or social circumstances," University of South Australia PhD candidate Anne Macnamara told Medical Xpress. “For example, if a mistaken score contributed to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, it could trigger psychological problems including depression and anxiety.”

Unfortunately, vision problems are often missed in clinical and research environments. The research team estimates experts underestimate visual impairments in half of all older adults. This statistic will increase as the population ages, so it is crucial that researchers examine vision when analyzing cognitive function in older people.

Prioritize Annual Comprehensive Eye Exams.

A yearly comprehensive eye exam looks at your vision and your eye health. Your ophthalmologist will evaluate you for the following:

  • Focusing problems
  • Refractive errors
  • Eye diseases like macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts

Are you looking for a board-certified ophthalmologist in your area? Our eye centers are located nationwide, and our caring staff is equipped to meet your vision needs. Call today to make an appointment.