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Something in your eyes can reveal if you are at risk of premature death, studies show

A quick and painless scan of the human eyeball could one day help doctors identify 'rapid elderly' who are at greater risk of early mortality.

Getting older obviously has an impact on everyone's body, but just because two people have the same number of years on their backs does not mean they are physically declining at the same rate.

Looking deep into a person's eyes could be a far better way to measure their true biological age, and this could provide an insight into patients' future health.

A machine learning model has now been taught to predict a person's life expectancy simply by looking at their retina, which is woven in the back of the eye.

The algorithm is so accurate that it could predict the age of almost 47,000 middle-aged and older adults in the UK within a 3.5-year bracket.

Just over a decade after these retinas were scanned, 1,871 people had died, and those with older-looking retinas were more likely to fall into this group.

For example, if the algorithm predicted a person's retina was one year older than their actual age, their risk of death for any cause increased by 2 percent over the next 11 years. At the same time, their risk of dying from a cause other than cardiovascular disease or cancer increased by 3 percent.

The results are purely observational, meaning that we still do not know what drives this relationship at a biological level.

Nevertheless, the results support growing evidence that the retina is very sensitive to the damage of aging. Because this visible tissue hosts both blood vessels and nerves, it can tell us important information about a person's vascular and brain health.

Previous studies have suggested that the cells on the back of the human eye can help us predict the onset of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and other signs of aging. But this is the first study to present the 'retinal age gap' as a strong predictor of mortality as a whole.

"The significant association between retinal age difference and non-cardiovascular / non-cancer mortality, together with the growing evidence for the association between eye and brain, may support the notion that the retina is the 'window' for neurological diseases," the authors. write.

Because only 20 people in the study died due to dementia, the authors were unable to link this specific brain disorder to retinal health.

They also point out that cardiovascular-related deaths have dropped in recent years as medication continues to prevent what would once have been fatal incidents.

This means that retinal health may still be an important lens in cardiovascular health, despite the fact that it was not associated with cardiovascular mortality.

Previous studies have shown, for example, that photographs of the retina can help predict cardiovascular risk factors.

"This work supports 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," the authors conclude.

Other existing biological age predictors, such as neuroimaging, the DNA methylation clock, and the transcriptome aging clock, are not as accurate as the age gap in the retina appears to be. These methods can also be expensive, time consuming and invasive.

The retina, meanwhile, can be easily scanned in less than 5 minutes. If we can learn more about how this layer of tissue connects to the rest of the body, clinicians could have an excellent new tool on their hands.

The study was published in British Journal of Ophthalmology.


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