Millions of seniors who take aspirin daily to relieve pain or reduce the risk of heart disease may be doubling their risk of developing a debilitating eye disease, according to a new European study.
The possible link involves so-called “wet” age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a significant cause of blindness in seniors. Aspirin use was not found to be associated with the more common “dry” form of AMD, according to the report, which was published in the January issue of Ophthalmology.
The findings could cause concern for older people who take aspirin daily to control pain, inflammation and for its cardiovascular health benefits.
“People should be aware that aspirin, often just bought over the counter without prescription, may have adverse effects for AMD,” said lead author Dr. Paulus de Jong, a professor of ophthalmic epidemiology at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.
Age-related macular degeneration occurs when the central portion of the retina that is important for reading and color vision becomes damaged due to the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye. AMD can take two different forms: dry and wet. Wet AMD is the more serious with 200,000 Americans diagnosed every year. Without treatment, patients can lose their central vision, leaving only peripheral or side vision. The symptoms can occur suddenly or gradually over time.
4,700 men and women over age 65 living in Norway, Estonia, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece and Spain were included in the study. Researchers looked at their frequency of aspirin use, smoking and drinking; as well as strokes, heart attacks and blood pressure. The team also looked for signs of age-related macular degeneration.
Early AMD was found in more than a third of participants (36%), while late-stage AMD was found in just 3%. Of those with late AMD, more than two-thirds had wet AMD, while about a third had dry AMD.
Researchers found the association with wet AMD was stronger the more often an individual took aspirin. About one-third of those with wet AMD consumed aspirin on a daily basis, compared to 16% of those with no AMD.
“I would advise persons who have early or late AMD not to take aspirin as a painkiller,” said de Jong. But he also stressed that people with a past history of heart disease or vascular problems such as stroke should continue to take small does of aspirin, because the benefits of aspirin outweigh any risk of AMD.
The National Eye Institute says that age is the highest risk factor for developing AMD. By the time a person is 75, there is a 30% chance that he or she will develop AMD. In addition, women are more likely than men and whites are more likely than African Americans to develop the condition. Other risk factors include smoking, obesity and family history.