Seeing The Signs

Researchers say a new, first-of-its-kind study shows the retina may also be able to provide scientists with an easy, non-invasive way to determine our body’s true biological age. And as it turns out, dry eyes can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. Also, high cholesterol levels can cause a white, gray, or blue ring to form around the colored part of your eye, called the iris. A coppery gold ring circling the iris is a telltale sign of Wilson’s disease. This rare genetic disorder causes copper to build up in the brain, liver, and other organs, slowly poisoning the body.

But wait! There’s more.

Damage to the retina can indicate early signs of nerve damage due to diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, even cancer, as well as glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration.

Checking for signs of disease is the main reason the doctor recommends dilation during your annual eye exam –they can literally look deep into your eyes.

Doctors say that looking deep into the back of the eye can tell a good bit about a person’s health.

Dr. Mingguang He, a professor of ophthalmic epidemiology at the University of Melbourne and Centre for Eye Research in Australia, wrote, “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.” The study was published Tuesday in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

The study analyzed over 130,000 retinal images from samples from people participating in the UK BioBank, a long-term government study of over 500,000 UK participants between 40 and 69. Using a deep learning model, which is a form of machine learning, the researchers estimated a “retinal age gap” between the actual biological health of the eye and the person’s age since birth.

 The study found a 2% increase in the risk of death from any cause for each year of difference between a person’s actual age and the older biological age identified in the eye.

More significant gaps of 3, 5, and 10 years between actual age and biological age measured from the retina were associated with up to a 67% higher risk of death from specific diseases, even after taking into account other factors such as high blood pressure, weight, and lifestyle differences such as smoking.

“Using a deep learning algorithm, the computer was able to determine the patient’s age from a color photo of the retina with pretty good accuracy. These levels of changes are not things that we as clinicians will be able to tell — we can tell if someone is a child versus an older adult, but not if someone is 70 vs. 80,” said Dr. Sunir Garg, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study.

“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,” Garg said.

The model failed to significantly predict an increased risk of death for two particular disease groups: cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, the researchers said that might be due to fewer cases in the population studied or to improvements in cancer and heart disease treatments.

“Our novel findings have determined that the retinal age gap is an independent predictor of increased mortality risk, especially of non-cardiovascular disease and non-cancer mortality,” wrote Dr. He and his team. “These findings suggest that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker of aging.”

“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, and hopefully will be useful in helping patients understand changes that they can make to improve not just their eye health, but their overall health,” Garg wrote.

The next time your doc wants to peer deep into your eyes, let them!

Sources

https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/amd-macular-degeneration
https://bjo.bmj.com/content/early/2021/11/17/bjophthalmol-2021-319807

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