Retinal microvascular abnormalities and cognitive decline: the ARIC 14-year follow-up study

Neurology. 2009 Sep 15;73(11):862-8. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181b78436.


Background: Because retinal and cerebral arterioles share similar pathologic processes, retinal microvascular changes are expected to be markers of cerebral small vessel disease (SVD). To better understand the role of SVD in cognitive function, we investigated the relationship between retinal microvascular abnormalities and longitudinal changes in cognitive function in a community-based study.

Methods: A total of 803 participants underwent 4 cognitive assessments between 1990-1992 and 2004-2006, using the Word Fluency (WF) test, Digit Symbol Substitution (DSS), and Delayed Word Recall as well as retinal photography in 1993-1995. Covariate adjusted random effects linear models for repeated measures were used to determine the associations of cognitive change with specific retinal vascular abnormalities.

Results: Individuals with retinopathy showed declines in executive function and psychomotor speed, with 1) an average decline in WF of -1.64 words per decade (95% confidence interval [CI] -3.3, -0.02) compared to no decline in those without retinopathy +0.06 (95% CI -0.6, 0.8) and 2) a higher frequency of rapid decliners on the DSS test.

Conclusion: Signs of retinal vascular changes, as markers of the cerebral microvasculature, are associated with declines in executive function and psychomotor speed, adding to the growing evidence for the role of microvascular disease in cognitive decline in the elderly.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular Diseases / pathology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Cognition Disorders / pathology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microvessels / pathology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Odds Ratio
  • Prospective Studies
  • Retinal Vessels / abnormalities*
  • Risk Factors