The eyes may offer a “window to the soul,” as the poets say, but they also have a lot to say about your health.
Dry eyes can be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis. High cholesterol levels can cause a white, gray, or blue ring to form around the colored part of the eye, called the iris. A coppery-gold ring surrounding 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, slowly poisoning the body.
And that’s not all: damage to the blood vessels in the back of the eye, called the retina, can be early signs of nerve damage from diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, or even cancer, as well as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
Watching for signs of disease is one of the main reasons your doctor dilates your eyes to look into their depths at annual eye exams.
Soon, there may be another good reason to put up with a few hours of blurry vision. A new study, which researchers say is the first of its kind, claims that 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.
“The retina offers a unique and accessible ‘window’ to assess the underlying pathological processes of systemic vascular and neurological diseases that are associated with increased risk of mortality,” wrote study author Dr. Mingguang He, Professor of the Epidemiology Ophthalmic University of Melbourne and the Australian Eye Research Centre. The study was published Tuesday in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.
A modeling studio
The study analyzed more than 130,000 retinal images from samples given by people participating in the UK BioBank, a long-term government study of more than 500,000 UK participants between the ages of 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 that there was a 2% increased risk of death from any cause for each year of difference between a person’s actual age and the oldest biological age identified in the eye.
Larger gaps of three, five, and 10 years between actual age and biological age measured from the retina were significantly associated with up to a 67% increased risk of death from specific diseases, even after accounting for other factors such as age. high blood pressure, weight, and lifestyle differences such as smoking.
“The computer was able to determine the age of the patient from a color photo of the retina quite accurately from a deep learning algorithm. This level of change is not something that we as clinicians can say: we can say if someone is a child or an older adult, but not if someone is 70 instead of 80,” said Dr. Sunir Garg, a clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and a professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, who did not participate in the study.
“The unique aspect of this work is using that difference in a patient’s actual age compared to how old the computer thought the patient was to determine mortality. This is something we didn’t think was possible,” Garg said. by email.
There were two disease groups for which the model failed to significantly predict an increased risk of death: cardiovascular disease and cancer. This could be due to fewer such cases in the population studied, according to the researchers, or improvements in cancer and heart disease treatments.
“Our novel findings have determined that retinal age gap is an independent predictor of increased mortality risk, especially from non-cardiovascular disease and non-cancer-related mortality,” He and his team wrote.
“These findings suggest that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker of aging.”
Putting this theory into practice is still a distant possibility at this time. Still, the study shows another benefit of letting someone else look deep into your eyes, even if it’s your ophthalmologist.
“Larger data sets in more diverse populations will need to be done, but this study highlights that simple, non-invasive tests of the eye could help us educate patients about their overall health, and hopefully will be useful in helping patients understand the changes they can make to improve not only their eye health, but their overall health,” Garg wrote.