Age-Related Macular Degeneration Risk Linked to Smoking, Alcohol Use: Study

Researchers urge public health regulators to emphasize the risks of blindness linked to both drinking and smoking.

Drinking alcohol and smoking are already linked to a number of serious health problems, but the findings of a new study suggest the vices may also increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a serious eye disease that can lead to blindness.

In findings published this month in the medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers from the United Kingdom indicate there appears to a causal connection between age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and alcohol consumption, with smoking initiation and lifetime smoking linked to an increased risk of advanced AMD.

Advanced age-related macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness in Western countries, involving damage to parts of the retina that cause blurred vision in the center of the eye. One in five people with AMD will develop the advanced form, geographic atrophy. In this form, the cells in the retina die, leading to blind spots in the center of vision. Roughly 2 million people over the age of 65 have AMD in the United States.

In this latest study, researchers analyzed genetic data for more than 16,000 people with age-related macular degeneration. This included more than 3,300 people with geographic atrophy, an even rarer late-stage form of AMD.

The data was taken from the UK Biobank, a biomedical database with in-depth genetic and health information for more than 50,000 people. They compared the data to 18,000 control subjects who did not have the disease.

The researchers identified patients who were genetically predisposed to alcohol use, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. They also identified patients diagnosed with both AMD and without AMD.

According to the findings, those with genetic variants linked with alcohol and smoking addiction faced an increased risk of AMD. Those genetically predisposed to developing a smoking habit who then became regular tobacco users their whole lives increased their risk for age-related macular degeneration by 30%.

People with genetic traits predisposing them to alcohol use and had higher alcohol intake faced three times the risk of developing a rare late-stage form of AMD known as geographic atrophy.

The researchers determined that starting smoking increased a person’s risk of AMD, quitting smoking lowered the risk. Drinking alcohol was linked with an even higher risk of the advanced form of AMD. These are considered strong signs of a causal connection.

“These results also support previous observational studies associating smoking behavior with risk of advanced AMD, thus reinforcing existing public health messages regarding the risk of blindness associated with smoking,” the researchers wrote.

Researchers found no increased risk of AMD for those with Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, glycemic traits, body mass index, or high blood pressure.

The findings appear to confirm prior studies which have linked smoking and alcohol with AMD. The researchers called for public health officials to focus on raising awareness of the link between smoking and drinking and the potential to go blind, as they have done with the link between smoking and cancer and alcohol and liver damage. Knowing smoking and drinking can lead to blindness may be a stronger deterrent for some people, especially considering there are no known treatments for geographic atrophy, the researchers noted.

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