Visual dysfunction, neurodegenerative diseases, and aging

Neurol Clin. 2003 Aug;21(3):709-28. doi: 10.1016/s0733-8619(02)00107-x.


The four most common sight-threatening conditions in older adults in North America are cataract, ARM, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Even in their moderate stages, these conditions cause visual sensory impairments and reductions in health-related quality of life, including difficulties in daily tasks and psychosocial problems. Many older adults are free from these conditions, yet still experience a variety of visual perceptual problems resulting from aging-related changes in the optics of the eye and degeneration of the visual neural pathways. These problems consist of impairments in visual acuity, contrast sensitivity, color discrimination, temporal sensitivity, motion perception, peripheral visual field sensitivity, and visual processing speed. PD causes a progressive loss of dopaminergic cells predominantly in the retina and possibly in other areas of the visual system. This retinal dopamine deficiency produces selective spatial-temporal abnormalities in retinal ganglion cell function, probably arising from altered receptive field organization in the PD retina. The cortical degeneration characteristics of AD, including neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic plaques, also are present in the visual cortical areas, especially in the visual association areas. The most prominent electrophysiologic change in AD is a delay in the P2 component of the flash VEP. Deficits in higher-order visual abilities typically are compromised in AD, including problems with visual attention, perceiving structure from motion, visual memory, visual learning, reading, and object and face perception. There have been reports of a visual variant of AD in which these types of visual problems are the initial and most prominent signs of the disease. Visual sensory impairments (e.g., contrast sensitivity or achromatopsia) also have been reported but are believed more reflective of cortical disturbances than of AD-associated optic neuropathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications
  • Humans
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / complications*
  • Parkinson Disease / complications
  • Perceptual Disorders / etiology*
  • Perceptual Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Visual Acuity / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*