Treat Vision Loss to Lower the Risk for Dementia

Disappointing dementia drug trial results have recently led researchers to investigate alternative treatments to help lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.  Focusing primarily on addressing modifiable risks and behavioral changes rather than a silver-bullet drug represents a significant shift in the approach science is beginning to take to combat dementia.  Paying greater attention to treating poor eyesight or hearing, high blood pressure, and promoting smoking cessation may be the best way forward. 

According to a recent New York Time Health article, a recent study demonstrated that healthy vision could have prevented 100,000 dementia cases.  The research, published in JAMA Neurology, found that an estimated 62 percent of current dementia cases could have been prevented, and 1.8 percent could have been prevented by treating vision problems. Although the percentage is small, treating eye problems with regular eye exams, prescription eyeglasses, and cataract surgery are relatively accessible and affordable interventions. 

Other factors that contribute to dementia include untreated high blood pressure, lower education levels, impaired hearing, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, and social isolation.  Excessive alcohol consumption, air pollution, and traumatic brain injuries were recently added to the Lancet Commission’s list of known dementia risk factors.   By eliminating these factors, researchers estimate that 40 percent of the world’s dementia cases could be prevented or delayed. 

By treating hearing and vision loss in older age, seniors can stay socially and physically active, helping to reduce isolation, depression, and obesity. When vision is impaired, older adults may stop reading, participating in hobbies, or withdraw from social activities.  The brain relies on sensory stimulation from sight and sound to maintain its function, and without that stimulation, researchers say neurons will die out and changes in the brain will occur. 

Because normal vision and hearing loss may not be covered by traditional old age medical insurance, seniors often avoid treating these issues due to cost.  Private insurance programs may include some vision and hearing benefits but they still may not come close to covering hearing aid that can cost thousands of dollars.  Deregulation of hearing aids is in the works in the United States where new FDA guidelines are expected to go into effect by fall 2022, lowering the cost of over-the-counter hearing aids for mild to moderate hearing loss by as much as 90 percent. 

Treatment for macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts is usually covered in old age, but routine eye exams and glasses are often not.  There are many online prescription glasses retailers that fit most budgets, and certain warehouse chains have optical departments that provide exams and carry a wide range of affordable eyeglasses and contact lenses.  By protecting vision and hearing, staying physically and socially engaged, and adequately controlling health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, older adults can lower their risk of developing dementia.