Your eyes hold the key to your true biological age, research shows

Dry eyes can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. High levels of cholesterol can cause a white, gray or blue ring to form around the colored part of your eye, called the iris. A copper-like gold ring orbiting the iris is a key sign of Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes copper to build up in the brain, liver and other organs, slowing the poisoning of the body.

And that’s not all: Damage to blood vessels in the back of the eye, called the retina, can be 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 illness is a key reason why the doctor widens your eyes to look deep into their depths at your annual eye exams.

Soon there may be another good reason to suffer from a few hours of blurred vision. A new study, which researchers say is the first of its kind, says the retina may also provide us with an easy, non-invasive way to determine our body’s true biological age – which may or may not reflect our chronological age.

Looking deep into the eye can tell a lot about a person's health, doctors say.
“The retina offers a unique, accessible ‘window’ for evaluating underlying pathological processes of systemic vascular and neurological diseases associated with increased risk of mortality,” wrote study author Dr. Mingguang He, Professor of Ophthalmic Epidemiology at the University of Melbourne and the Center for Ophthalmology in Australia. The study was published Tuesday in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

A modeling study

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

There was 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, the study found.

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Larger distances of three, five and 10 years between actual age and biological age measured from the retina were significantly 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 based on a color photo of the retina with fairly good accuracy. These changes are not things we as clinicians want be able to tell – we can see if anyone is a child versus an older adult, but not if anyone is 70 vs 80, “said Dr. Sunir Garg, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, which was not involved in the study.

“The really unique aspect of this paper is to use the difference in a patient’s actual age compared to the age the computer thought a patient was to determine mortality. This is not something we thought was possible,” Garg said via e-mail. mail.

There were two disease groups for which the model was not able to significantly predict an increased risk of death: cardiovascular disease and cancer. This may be due to a smaller number of such cases in the study population, the researchers said, or improvements in cancer and heart disease treatments.

“Our new results have established that the age gap in the retina is an independent predictor of increased mortality risk, particularly of non-cardiovascular disease and non-cancer mortality,” He and his team wrote. “These results suggest that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker for aging.”

Putting this theory into practice is just a glimpse into the eyes of researchers at this point. Still, the study shows yet another benefit of letting another person look deep into your eyes, even if it’s just your eye doctor.

Larger data sets on more diverse populations need to be performed, but this study highlights that simple, non-invasive eye tests can help us inform patients about their overall health and will hopefully be helpful in helping patients understand changes that they can do to improve not only their eye health but their overall health, “Garg wrote.


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