Your eyes are a 'window' into your lifespan, study suggests

Your eyes are a ‘window’ into your lifespan, study suggests

If you could know how long you have left to live, would you want to know? A recent study, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, suggests that your eyes can lift the veil on your life expectancy. A team of international researchers has discovered a link between the biological age of a person’s retina and their risk of death.

The retina – a membrane at the back of the eye – contains millions of light-sensitive cells (rods and cones) and other nerve cells that receive and organize visual information.

A study of nearly 47,000 adults found that people whose retinas were “older” than their actual age were more likely to die within the next decade.

This discovery could have profound implications for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“The retina offers a unique and accessible ‘window’ to assess the pathological processes underlying systemic vascular and neurological diseases associated with increased mortality risks,” said corresponding author Dr. Mingguang He of the Center for Eye Research. Australia.

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How the researchers gathered their findings

The researchers followed the participants, all between the ages of 40 and 69, for an average of 11 years.

Each person had their fundus – the back surface of the eye – scanned as part of the UK Biobank study; a large-scale biomedical database and research resource, containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK participants.

The international team compared the “biological age” of each retina with that person’s chronological age, finding a “retinal age gap” in many participants.

Large gaps were associated with 49-67% higher risks of death from any cause other than cardiovascular disease or cancer.

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This was after taking into account potentially influential factors such as high blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), lifestyle and ethnicity.

“Our new findings determined that retinal age gap is an independent predictor of increased risk of mortality, particularly non-cardiovascular disease/non-cancer mortality. These results suggest that retinal age may be a biomarker clinically significant in aging,” the researchers said.

For every one-year increase in age difference, scientists found a two and three percent increase in the risk of death from any cause or specific cause, respectively.

The findings add to evidence that the network of small vessels in the retina is a reliable indicator of the overall health of the body’s circulatory and brain system.

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While the risks of disease and death increase with age, it is clear that they vary considerably between people of the same age, according to the team.

Study authors used an advanced type of AI (artificial intelligence) known as ‘deep learning’ to accurately predict a person’s retinal age from fundus images .

The new technology is different from similar tests on tissues, cells and biological aging chemicals, which the study authors say pose many ethical and privacy concerns. These tests are also invasive, expensive and time-consuming.

The team validated their screening model using some 19,200 fundus images from the right eye of 11,052 relatively healthy participants. This showed a strong association between predicted retinal age and actual age, with an overall accuracy of less than three and a half years.

The same process applied to the left eyes produced similar results. The scientists then assessed the retinal age difference in the remaining 35,917 volunteers.

During the study period, 1,871 (five percent) participants died. In this group, 321 (17%) died from cardiovascular disease, 1,018 (54.5%) died from cancer, and 532 (28.5%) died from other causes, including dementia.

More than half of the participants fell into the “rapidly aging” category – those whose retinas appeared older than their actual age – with 51% having retinal age discrepancies of more than three years, 28% with a discrepancy of five years and 4.5% with a gap of more than 10 years.

The new findings, combined with previous research, add weight to “the hypothesis that the retina plays an important role in the aging process and is susceptible to the cumulative damage of aging that increases the risk of mortality,” wrote the Dr He.

“Our results indicate that retinal age difference could be a potential biomarker of aging that is closely related to mortality risk, implying the potential of the retinal image as a screening tool for risk stratification and the provision of tailored interventions,” the study authors concluded.

This journal previously covered a study that found a link between diet, circadian rhythms, eye health and lifespan.

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