Understanding the impact of visual impairment on life with dementia

Research project: Understanding the effects of concurrent visual impairment on the experience and diagnosis of dementia.

Lead Investigator: Dr Claire Hutchinson
Institution: University of Leicester
Grant type: PhD studentship
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £69,525

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'A project that could well be useful in furthering knowledge of vision issues with dementia.'

'I think this would be a worthwhile project for research and will help us understand the impact on a person with dementia. There is the potential for us to educate care givers and to develop strategies or interventions to overcome any difficulties they face when trying to support someone with visual impairment.'

'Knowing how difficult it can be for dementia patients to obtain professional help, I happily support this application.'

What do we already know?

In the UK, people over the age of 65 have a 1 in 7 chance of having a visual impairment and a 1 in 14 chance of being diagnosed with dementia. This means that many people who are living with dementia are also likely to have a visual impairment. The symptoms of dementia such as confusion or disorientation can be made to feel worse by inability to clearly see important visual clues such as friendly faces or street signs. Visual impairment may also lead to the isolation of someone living with dementia by reducing their ability to interact with other people or navigate safely in their environment.

When a person has a visual impairment, the methods that are usually used to test for the signs of dementia can be inappropriate because they depend so much on visual function. Poorer performance on these tests due to visual impairment has been shown in previous research to result in the medical team believing that the symptoms of dementia are present or more severe than they actually are. Also day to day issues such as trouble finding objects can be mistakenly attributed to dementia when visual impairment might be the actual, undiagnosed cause. 

So far no large scale investigation has looked into the effect of visual impairment on living with dementia. In fact, the importance of understanding the impact of having a visual impairment on the person's experience of living with dementia has only recently been recognised.  

What does this project involve?

This study aims to understand the effect of visual impairment for people with dementia. The work will be carried out in three stages:

Firstly, the investigators will gather information about how living with a visual impairment and dementia can affect people with dementia, their families and carers. The student will categorise these findings according to the person's history of eye disease and the types of visual issues they have. They will use standardised questionnaires to assess visual functioning and visual activities. 

Secondly, the study will assess three groups of participants: young adults, older adults living with the early stages of dementia and a group of older adults not diagnosed with dementia. The researchers will investigate how age, visual function and performance in the tests of memory and thinking affect diagnosis of dementia. The vision tests aspect of this section of the study will focus on the visual functions that are particularly associated with ageing. In order to tackle the relationship between vision and dementia the participants will be asked to perform laboratory based tasks that require them to combine visual ability with information that they learned previously. For example, reading tests will be used as reading requires both the ability to interpret visual information and to remember previously learned information. 

Finally, the findings of the investigation will be communicated at national events in order to influence and create change in methods of diagnosis, care and policy when it comes to visual impairment and dementia.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

The results of this study will provide a valuable resource for those caring for and diagnosing people with dementia. The data will aid in the understanding of visual impairment in those living with dementia, how it affects their daily lives and how the assessments required for diagnosis of dementia might be adapted for people in this situation.

The results will also be shared with relevant researchers and health professionals and the researchers will work towards understanding how to create changes in policy and care to ensure that people living with dementia and visual impairment receive the most accurate diagnosis and appropriate care. 

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