Duke University researchers have identified differences in the size blood of vessels in the eyes of individuals more prone to developing dementia later in life — a finding that could one day offer early clues to patients more likely to suffer memory loss and other cognitive problems later in life.
The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, indicate the width of blood vessels in the retina, located at the back of the eye, may indicate brain health years before the onset of dementia and other mental deficits.
The research, involving younger people, shows individuals who score low on intelligence tests, such as IQ, tend to be at higher risk for poorer health and shorter lifespan. But Duke psychological scientist Idan Shalev and colleagues sought to determine if IQ might serve as a marker indicating the health of the brain and blood vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients — and potentially offer clues to future mental health problems.
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Shalev and colleagues used digital retinal imaging to examine the small blood vessels of the retina, which are similar in size, structure, and function with those in the brain. The researchers examined data more than 1,000 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand.
The results showed those with wider blood vessels had lower IQ scores at age 38, as well as evidence of general cognitive deficits — scoring lower on tests of verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and executive functions.
The findings suggest that the processes that lead to declines in mental functioning in old age begin much earlier than previously assumed, years before the onset of dementia and other declines in brain functioning.
"Increasing knowledge about retinal vessels may enable scientists to develop better diagnosis and treatments to increase the levels of oxygen into the brain and by that, to prevent age-related worsening of cognitive abilities," the researchers concluded.
Shalev added: "Digital retinal imaging is a tool that is being used today mainly by eye doctors to study diseases of the eye. But our initial findings indicate that it may be a useful investigative tool for psychological scientists who want to study the link between intelligence and health across the lifespan."
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