How Vision Loss Can Affect the Brain
It is no surprise that vision loss is a part of aging. Years of evidence show that with growing age, the brain works harder to see. Recent evidence suggests that along with a decline in vision comes a decline in other cognitive functions such as language, memory, and attention. While the loss of brain health affects our body’s well-being in multiple ways, it especially affects our vision and the functions that rely on this sense. Where exactly does vision play a role? Recent studies have observed the link between vision loss and other negative effects.
One such study is known as the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. This particular study observed 1,202 men and women from the ages of 60 to 94 for an average of seven years. Vision and cognitive tests were run every one to four years beginning in 2003, recently ending in 2019. Routine vision tests were conducted to assess vision capabilities by having participants read different-sized letters from an eye chart that is further away. The researchers found that those who scored poorly were more likely to experience cognitive decline over time. Besides typical decline like depth perception, participants were found to develop other delays and declines in language, memory, and the ability to identify objects. Results of the study add evidence that vision impairment can lead to cognitive decline in older adults.
How Can Correcting Poor Vision Improve The Brain?
Swenor & Zheng (2018) conducted a study that hypothesized that cognitive decline results in impaired vision. They had 2,520 community participants ages 65 to 84. Participants performed vision and cognitive tests, examining for declines. Swenor & Zheng (2018) concluded that it is important for older adults to maintain their vision, as visual impairments may help minimize the extent of cognitive decline in older adults. The researchers found that vision loss creates a similar negative change in the brain like a decrease in physical or social activity. As a result, making sure that you go for regular eye check ups, changing your glasses once they are hard to see out of, and checking in on your vision are important for steps in preventing cognitive decline and vision loss.
Are Glasses The Only Fix?
Simply put, no.
Glasses alone are not strong enough to help fix the link between vision loss and cognitive decline. There are other vision impairments people suffer that glasses will not fix. One example is retinal disease, which began to affect Dr. Swenor’s vision in her mid-20’s. A solution to vision impairments like retinal disease is low vision rehabilitation. Similar to how physical therapy one does to help train and strengthen their body, this kind of therapy is meant to train and strengthen the eyes. Other simple fixes can just be done by changing surroundings in your environment, such as changing colors and lighting in a room that may make vision more difficult.
With cognitive impairments from vision loss comes other effects that change the way a person is in their own home. Some suffer from depth perception, which can be tricky in a home, but also can be changed. There are home improvement solutions like “ Placing colored strips on stair risers, varying textures of furniture and color-coding objects can all improve the ability to navigate safely.” If you used to enjoy reading books, but it hurts your eyes, you can start listening to audio books. Vision impairments and cognitive impairment is not the end all be all, there are solutions.
While it is no surprise that these impairments negatively affect one’s life, it does not mean it needs to be the end of their social and normal life. If you think this might be something you are being affected by, make an appointment with your eye doctor, and start discussing options. You are not alone, and there are resources to help you.
Varadaraj V, Munoz B, Deal JA, et al. Association of Vision Impairment With Cognitive Decline Across Multiple Domains in Older Adults. JAMA Network Open. 2021;4(7):e2117416. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.17416