Science

The retina can predict the risk of premature death

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Aging is an inevitable phenomenon in the life of every individual on Earth. However, this natural process does not always occur at the same rate among individuals of the same age. A study recently published in the British medical journal, suggests that the “retinal age” would be decisive to obtain an estimate of the true biological age. Thanks to a powerful algorithm, an analysis of the retina (or “retinal age gap”) would be enough to determine if one is at risk of dying prematurely or not.

Aging is a long, complex and irreversible process that spreads throughout the body over time. The retina, the thin membrane that lines the eye and receives information from light, is particularly susceptible to damage caused by aging. Biological aging different from and independent of chronological aging (corresponding to unavoidable age-related changes, as opposed to biological aging which may include the environment, among other contributing factors).

Other indicators of biological age already exist, such as neuroimaging, the DNA methylation clock, and the transcriptome aging clock. But they lack precision and can be expensive and time-consuming to perform, while the retina can be easily scanned in less than 5 minutes. This retina scan could eventually become a reliable and painless tool available to any doctor.

A specific biological breeding for each

As mentioned above, two people can age chronologically at the same rate, but biological aging is a completely different story. The automatic algorithm model developed by the group of researchers learned to predict a person’s lifespan by observing and analyzing the state of their retina.

In particular, he was able to accurately predict the true biological age of nearly 47,000 middle-aged and elderly English adults (within a range of 3.5 years). This result was confirmed after about 11 years, after the analysis and digitization of the retinas of these people. 1,871 of them had died, and those with aged-looking retinas were more likely to be in this group.

The algorithm can thus predict that if a person’s retina is one year older than their true chronological age, their risk of death from any cause increases by 2% over 11 years. At the same time, the risk of dying from a cause other than cardiovascular disease or cancer increased by 3% in the study. Hence the name “retinal age difference”.

“This body of work supports the hypothesis that the retina plays an important role in the aging process and is susceptible to cumulative aging damage that increases mortality risk,” the study authors explain in their article.

The retina, lens of neurological and cardiovascular health

Since the risk and severity of degenerative diseases increase with age, the condition of the retina can be a great source of information in determining a patient’s life expectancy. And since the retina is very rich in nerves and blood vessels, several previous studies have already shown that this retinal network can be a reliable indicator of overall heart and neurological health. Some research has even shown that the brain adapts vision to heart rate.

The factors vision, blood circulation and neurological functions are therefore closely related. But the study published in the British journal is the first to present the “retinal age difference” as a powerful predictor of overall mortality, without taking into account underlying diseases.

“The significant association between retinal age difference and non-cardiovascular/non-cancer mortality, coupled with growing evidence for the eye-brain connection, may support the idea that the retina is the ‘window’ of neurological disease. “, the authors explain.

However, it should be noted that the results of this study are derived solely from observations, but the biological process that governs this relationship remains unexplained, according to the researchers. Also, only 20 of the people who participated in the study died of dementia. Therefore, the authors were unable to establish a link between this specific brain disorder and retinal health.

The researchers also noted that deaths related to cardiovascular disease have greatly decreased in recent years, thanks to progress in medicine. Despite this fact, retinal health may still be an important indicator of cardiovascular health. Previous studies, for example, have shown that retinal photographs can help predict cardiovascular risk factors.

British Medical Journal

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