A new study has found an interesting correlation between several degenerative eye diseases and the onset of Alzheimer's disease. No mechanism explaining the connection has been proposed at this stage but it is thought these eye conditions may help physicians identify patients at risk of developing Alzheimer's at a stage before major symptoms appear.

The five-year study followed almost 4,000 patients over the age of 65, all without clinically diagnosed Alzheimer's disease at the time of enrolment. After five years, 792 subjects were officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's. The study found that those subjects with age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy or glaucoma, were 40 to 50 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer's compared to patients without those specific conditions. No correlation between cataracts and an increased risk of Alzheimer's were found.

"We don't mean people with these eye conditions will get Alzheimer's disease," cautions Cecilia Lee, lead researcher on the study. "The main message from this study is that ophthalmologists should be more aware of the risks of developing dementia for people with these eye conditions and primary care doctors seeing patients with these eye conditions might be more careful on checking on possible dementia or memory loss."

The researchers are clear that there are no definable causal connections between these eye conditions and Alzheimer's at this stage, but the study does highlight the potential of using the eye as a way to better understand what is going on in the brain. Intriguingly, this isn't the first bit of research that has found correlations between signs detected in the eye and the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Last year, a team from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center revealed that the same type of amyloid protein deposits found in the brain, and hypothesized as a major pathogenic cause of Alzheimer's, can also be detected on the retina. That research suggested a possible investigational eye scan could become an effective early screening device for the disease.

While this new study does not at all cross over with last year's research, and there is no implication that amyloid proteins play a part in these degenerative eye diseases, it does add to a fascinating growing body of work that highlights the eye's role in helping offer a deeper insight into the cognitive health of our brain.

The research was published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia.