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A particular type of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) has been linked to cardiovascular disease. The discovery offers hope that high-street opticians could screen for it and prevent cardiac arrests.
Professor Theodore Smith of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York said: “For the first time, we have been able to connect specific high-risk cardiovascular diseases to a specific form of AMD, the one with subretinal drusenoid deposits.”
These deposits, known as SDDs, are made up of fatty lipids that form beneath light-sensitive retina cells at the back of the eye and are associated with vision loss. Detection is difficult and requires hi-tech imaging scans.
Prof Smith said the blood supply to the eye is reduced either by heart damage that cuts it throughout the body “or from a blocked neck artery that directly impedes blood flow to the eye”.
He added: “A poor blood supply can cause damage to any part of the body, and with these specific diseases, the destroyed retina and leftover SDDs are that damage. Retinal damage means vision loss, and can lead to blindness.”
AMD is the leading cause of blindness in over-65s and involves damage to the central area of the retina called the macula, responsible for reading and driving vision.
The deposits contain cholesterol and there is no known treatment. An analysis of 200 AMD patients with severe cardiovascular diseases and stroke found they were nine times more likely to have these deposits.
Co-author Dr Richard Rosen said: “This work demonstrates the fact ophthalmologists may be the first physicians to detect systemic disease, especially in patients with no obvious symptoms.
“Detecting SDDs in the retina should trigger a referral to the individual’s primary care provider, especially if no previous cardiologist has been involved. It could prevent a life-threatening cardiac event.”
It is estimated around 40,000 Britons each year develop AMD, which affects everyday activities.
Dr Jagat Narula, at Mount Sinai, urged medical collaboration and studies to “learn which vascular patients should be referred for detection and prevention of blinding disease”.
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