"We did see improvement in many patients" after surgery to correct vision, says Brigitte Girard, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Tenon Hospital in Paris. Girard shared her team's results last month at the American Academy of Ophthalmology's 2011 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
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Girard says her four-year study is the first to assess the benefits of eye surgery in patients with Alzheimer's disease, although earlier research had shown that poor vision is related to impaired mood and thinking skills in older people.
The study included 38 patients, mostly women in their mid-80s, with mild to severe Alzheimer's disease. Of that group, 14 had severe dementia and 24 had mild dementia. The participants also had poor vision because the lens in one or both eyes had become cloudy — a condition known as cataracts. After cataract surgery, vision improved dramatically in all but one patient, Girard says.
Standard tests of the participants one month before and three months after the surgeries revealed that the patients with mild Alzheimer's disease experienced the greatest improvements.
A breakdown of the results for all the patients showed:
- 25 percent showed "some improvement" based on their ability to carry out simple tasks such as repeating a series of words. There was no improvement in complex tasks such as counting money, Girard says.
- 50 percent were less depressed.
- 25 percent were better able to feed and wash themselves, possibly because of better vision.
- 30 percent showed more interest in interacting with family members, while another third became more hostile for unknown reasons, Girard says.
- 50 percent slept better; Girard explains that allowing more light into the eye helps regulate the body's sleep-wake cycle.
Douglas D. Koch, M.D., an ophthalmology professor at the Cullen Eye Institute at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says the study was "small, although done meticulously." He says dissemination of the results could be especially helpful to those who care for Alzheimer's patients, since most men and women with Alzheimer's are not able to communicate that they're are having trouble seeing.
Also of interest: Eye test aids early diagnosis of Alzheimer's. >>
Jennifer Anderson is a freelance health and science writer.