Seniors concerned about developing Alzheimer’s frequently focus on forgetfulness. Everyone forgets information sometimes, though, and some decline in memory is normal with old age. A new group of studies suggests that changes in smell and vision could actually be better indicators of early Alzheimer’s disease and that doctors who test for sensory decline may detect the illness earlier.
Alzheimer’s and Olfactory Function
Alzheimer’s kills brain cells, including those associated with the ability to smell and taste. One recent study evaluated 215 clinically normal seniors’ sense of smell. Researchers found that a smaller hippocampus and a thin entorhinal cortex—which are associated with memory—were linked to worse sense of smell.
A second study followed 1,037 adults without Alzheimer’s, assessing each subject three times over the course of six years. Seniors whose sense of smell deteriorated were more likely to develop dementia than seniors whose sense of smell did not deteriorate.
Alzheimer’s and Sight
Brain cell death can affect sight just as it affects smell. Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s, but brain imaging tests to detect these plaques are expensive and are primarily used for research purposes, not as a diagnostic tool. Amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s are frequently deposited in the retina, suggesting the retina could serve as a proxy for the brain in Alzheimer’s tests.
A study that evaluated 200 seniors has found that a noninvasive eye-imaging technique called retinal amyloid imaging can detect amyloid plaques in the eye. The study verified its results by following up with brain images that show brain plaques in seniors who also have retinal plaques. So far, the study has only published results from 40 participants but is expected to be completed later this year.
Of course, the aging process often undermines sight and smell, so sensory challenges don’t necessarily mean a senior has Alzheimer’s. But changes in sensory perception warrant a trip to the doctor, and soon doctors may be able to more easily, safely, and inexpensively diagnose Alzheimer’s by evaluating sensory changes.
- Alzheimer’s Association. (2014, July 13). Smell and eye tests show potential to detect Alzheimer’s early. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140713155512.htm
- Wang, S. (2014, July 13). Keys to Detecting Alzheimer’s Early Could Be in the Eye. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/articles/key-to-detecting-alzheimers-early-could-be-in-the-eye-1405253029
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