Research Highlights:

  • In a large national survey, people with damage to the retina were more likely to have had a stroke or have dementia.
  • The more severe the damage to the retina, the more likely participants were to die within the next decade.
  • The findings raise the possibility that scans of the retina could help identify those at increased risk of stroke or dementia so preventive care can be offered.

Embargoed until 4 a.m. CT/5 a.m. ET Thursday, March 11, 2021

DALLAS, March 11, 2021 — Pictures of the retina may someday provide early warning signs that a person is at an increased risk of stroke and dementia, making it possible to take preventive measures, according to preliminary research to be presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2021. The virtual meeting is March 17-19, 2021 and is a world premier meeting for researchers and clinicians dedicated to the science of stroke and brain health.

Studies have shown that people with severe retinopathy, damage to the light-sensing tissue at the back of the eye, are more likely to have a diseased-looking brain on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“The retina is a window to the brain,” said Michelle P. Lin, M.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and a neurologist at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Florida. “A retinal photo that shows a magnified look at the back of the eye, including the retina and optic nerve, is cheaper and faster to perform than an MRI, so we’re wondering if it might be a good screening tool to see who could benefit from a referral to a neurologist for a brain MRI.”

In addition to the eye doctor’s office, retinal photos could be taken by a smart phone camera or via a smart phone adapter, Lin said.

In this study, researchers examined the association of retinopathy with stroke, dementia, and the risk of death in 5,543 adults (average age of 56 years) who participated in the annual U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) between 2005 and 2008. Participants during those years were interviewed about many aspects of their medical history and health behaviors, and in addition, they received a retinal scan photo to look for signs of retinopathy.

Compared with participants not diagnosed with retinopathy, those with retinopathy were:

  • more than twice as likely to have had a stroke;
  • almost 70% more likely to have dementia; and
  • more likely to die within the next 10 years, with each increase in the severity of retinopathy conferring a higher risk of death.

The odds were calculated after adjusting for risk factors including age, high blood pressure, diabetes and if they smoke.

“If you have retinopathy, work closely with your primary care doctor to alter your vascular risk factors and ask to be screened for cognitive impairment. You may be referred to a neurologist for evaluation and possibly a brain MRI,” said Lin, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

The study is limited because the NHANES data does not differentiate between various types of stroke. In addition, because the surveys rely on self-reported memory problems as an indicator of dementia, the occurrence of dementia may be overestimated.

Co-authors are Daniela Markovic, M.S.; Nilufer Ertekin-Taner, M.D., Ph.D.; Eric R. Eggenberger, D.O.; Michael W. Stewart, M.D.; Thomas G. Brott, M.D.; and James Meschia, M.D. The authors’ disclosures are available in the abstract.

The study was funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

Additional Resources:

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The American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference (ISC) is the world’s premier meeting dedicated to the science and treatment of cerebrovascular disease. ISC 2021 will be held virtually, March 17-19, 2021. The 3-day conference will feature more than 1,200 compelling presentations in 21 categories that emphasize basic, clinical and translational sciences as they evolve toward a better understanding of stroke pathophysiology with the goal of developing more effective therapies. Engage in the International Stroke Conference on social media via #ISC21.

About the American Stroke Association

The American Stroke Association is devoted to saving people from stroke — the No. 2 cause of death in the world and a leading cause of serious disability. We team with millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policies and provide lifesaving tools and information to prevent and treat stroke. The Dallas-based association officially launched in 1998 as a division of the American Heart Association. To learn more or to get involved, call 1-888-4STROKE or visit Follow us on Facebook, Twitter.


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