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Measuring the age of the retina reveals how long you want to live

EAST MELBOURNE, Australia (StudyFinds.org) - A simple eye test can give doctors a clue as to how long you have left to live. An international team has discovered a link between the biological age of a person's retinas and their risk of death.

The membrane at the back of the eye contains light-sensitive cells that begin to deteriorate in middle age. A study of nearly 47,000 adults found that people whose retinas were "older" than their actual age were more likely to die over the next decade.

The discovery could lead to a routine screening tool for a wide range of life-threatening diseases - including Alzheimer's disease.

"The retina offers a unique, accessible 'window' to evaluate underlying pathological processes of systemic vascular and neurological diseases associated with increased risk of mortality," says the corresponding author Dr. Mingguang He from the Center for Eye Research Australia in a media release.

Uncovering an 'age difference in the retina'

Researchers monitored participants, all between the ages of 40 and 69, for an average of 11 years. Each person had their fundus - the back of the eye - scanned as part of the UK biobank survey. The international team compared the "biological age" of each retina with the person's chronological age - and discovered a "retinal age difference" in many participants.

Large gaps were associated with 49 to 67 percent higher risk of death from any cause other than cardiovascular disease or cancer. This was after taking into account potentially influential factors such as high blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), lifestyle habits and ethnicity.

"Our new results have established that the age gap in the retina is an independent predictor of increased mortality risk, especially of non-cardiovascular disease / non-cancer mortality. These results suggest that retinal age may be a clinically significant biomarker for aging," the researchers say. .

For every one-year increase in the age difference, the researchers found an increase of two and three percent in the risk of death from any cause or a specific cause. The results add evidence that the network of small vessels in the retina is a reliable indicator of the overall health of the body's circulatory system and brain. While the risk of illness and death increases with age, it is clear that they vary significantly among people of the same age, according to the team.

Artificial intelligence helps predict your longevity

Biological aging is unique to the individual and can be a better indicator of current and future health. Study authors used an advanced type of AI (artificial intelligence) known as "deep learning" to accurately predict a person's retinal age from images of the fundus.

The new technology differs from similar tissue, cell and chemical tests of biological aging, which the study authors say are fraught with ethical and privacy issues. These tests are also invasive, expensive and time consuming.

The team validated their screening model using about 19,200 fundus images from the right eyes of 11,052 participants in relatively good health. This showed a strong correlation between predicted retinal age and real age, with an overall accuracy within three and a half years.

The same process applied to the left eye gave similar results. Researchers then assessed the age difference in the retina of the remaining 35,917 volunteers. During the study period, 1,871 (5%) participants died. Of this group, 321 (17%) died of cardiovascular disease, 1,018 (54.5%) died of cancer, and 532 (28.5%) died of other causes, including dementia.

1 in 20 people has an age difference in the retina of 10 years

Over half of the participants fell into the "rapid aging" category - those whose retinas looked older than their actual age - with 51 percent with retinal age gaps of more than three years, 28 percent with a gap of five years and 4.5 percent at intervals of more than 10 years.

Dr. He says previous studies have suggested retinal imaging includes information on cardiovascular risk factors, chronic kidney disease, and systemic biomarkers. 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 sensitive to the cumulative damage of aging, which increases the risk of mortality."

"Our results suggest that retinal age gap may be a potential biomarker for aging that is closely linked to the risk of mortality, implying the potential for retinal imaging as a screening tool for risk stratification and delivery of tailored interventions," the study authors write in British Journal of Ophthalmology.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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