An aging retina could reveal if you’re at risk of an early death: study

    A marker in your eye could reveal if you’re at risk of an early death, scientists say.

    Their discovery means they could predict who may die within a decade before any obvious signs of ill health.

    Researchers say the retina, tissue that sits at the back of the eye, can give clues about a person’s health.

    Damage to the nerves and blood vessels in the retina may be an early warning sign of disease.

    Already it is known that factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and poor diet are implicated in eye disorders, such as macular degeneration.

    The new research suggests if the retina is aging faster than the person themselves, it may foretell an early death.

    Scientists from China and Australia called this the “retinal age gap.”

    They tested their “eye-opening” theory on thousands of Brits.

    Those with the largest retinal age gaps of 10 years were up to 67 percent more likely to die over an 11-year study period.

    Damage to the nerves and blood vessels in the retina may be an early warning sign of disease.
    Getty Images

    “These findings suggest that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker of aging,” the authors wrote in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

    “The retina offers a unique, accessible ‘window’ to evaluate underlying pathological processes of systemic vascular and neurological diseases that are associated with increased risks of mortality. 

    “This hypothesis is supported by previous studies, which have suggested that retinal imaging contains information about cardiovascular risk factors, chronic kidney diseases, and systemic biomarkers.”

    For their research, the scientists first checked they were able to predict someone’s age based solely on the retina.

    They looked at the retinas of 19,200 UK adults between ages 40 and 69.

    Close-up of a brown colored eye.
    Large retinal age gaps were significantly associated with between 49 and 67 percent higher risks of death, researchers found.
    Getty Images

    A machine learning model was able to accurately predict the participant’s chronological age just by looking at the retina within a range of 3.5 years.

    Then the retinal age gap and its link to death was assessed in some 36,000 volunteers over a period of 11 years. 

    During this time, 5 percent of people (1,871) died, most commonly of cancer.

    All in the eyes

    Those who died were more likely to have been “fast agers,” meaning their retinas looked older than their true age, the study found.

    For example, if the person’s retina was a year older than their actual age, their risk of death from any cause in the next 11 years went up by 2 percent.

    A woman receives an eye examination.
    A study found “that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker of aging.”
    AFP via Getty Images

    Their risk of death from a specific cause, other than cardiovascular disease or cancer, went up by 3 percent.

    Large retinal age gaps in years were significantly associated with between 49 and 67 percent higher risks of death, other than from cardiovascular disease or cancer. 

    The study was retrospective, meaning participants involved had already died.

    The scientists have yet to “predict” who could be at risk of an early grave by looking at their eyes now.

    The new findings add weight to “the hypothesis that the retina plays an important role in the aging process and is sensitive to the cumulative damages of aging which increase the mortality risk,” the team said.

    eyeball
    Screening for the retinal age gap could provide health experts a picture of the health of patients.
    Getty Images/EyeEm

    But a screening tool, to help identify those at risk of death, is just a glimmer in their eye, for now.

    Dr. Sunir Garg, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology who was not involved in the research, told CNN clinicians do not currently have the means to pinpoint the age of a person’s retina.

    But the professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia added: “The really unique aspect of this paper is using that difference in a patient’s real age compared to the age the computer thought a patient was to determine mortality. 

    “This is not something that we thought was possible. Larger data sets on more diverse populations will need to be performed.

    “But this study highlights that simple, non-invasive tests of the eye might help us educate patients about their overall health.”

    Garg said it could hopefully mean patients can make changes to improve their health based on what their optician finds in their retina.

    This story originally appeared on the Sun and has been reproduced here with permission.


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