Are Heart Disease and Macular Degeneration Connected?
A rich network of blood vessels feed nutrients and oxygen to the eyes. This makes the eyes especially vulnerable to health problems that impact the heart and blood vessels, which is also called cardiovascular disease. Doctors know that many of the same risk factors for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) also are risks for cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, smoking cigarettes, high cholesterol, obesity, and age. However, the link between AMD and heart disease is still up for debate. Some studies seem to point to a connection between severe AMD and cardiovascular disease while other studies show no direct link.1
What is macular degeneration?
The retina is a light-sensing tissue located at the back of the eye. The central portion of the retina is called the macula, and this area is responsible for central vision. When certain macular cells begin to deteriorate, it is called macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S.2 People with macular degeneration do not usually go completely blind, but do have trouble seeing faces, driving, reading, writing, doing close work, or any other activity that requires sharp central vision.
Types of macular degeneration
There are two main types of age-related macular degeneration:
- Dry (atrophic) macular degeneration is by far the most common, occurring in 80-90% of cases.
- Wet (neovascular) macular degeneration strikes in only 10-20% of cases, but much more serious because it can cause blindness quickly.
Are AMD and heart disease connected?
One study recruited patients from 11 ophthalmology clinics in New York City and found evidence to suggest that neovascular (wet) AMD is associated with moderate to severe hypertension, particularly if those patients are taking drugs for high blood pressure. Those researchers speculated that wet and dry AMD have different causes, and that wet AMD and high blood pressure have similar causes.4
Another study found no link between early-stage AMD and heart disease, but people with late-stage age-related macular degeneration had a higher risk of heart attack, stroke or death compared to those without late-stage AMD. However, these scientists felt their sample size was too small to be conclusive.5
Yet another study found a small increase in the risk of future heart disease in both early and late-stage AMD, especially late-stage AMD. But again, this study concluded that the results were not definitive and worthy of continued study.6
What can you do?
While there are some risk factors for developing AMD and heart disease that are out of your control, such as your age, race, or genetics, there are some risk factors you can control. For instance, smoking cigarettes, uncontrolled hypertension, and obesity are all risk factors for both AMD and cardiovascular disease. These issues also increase your risk for a wide variety of diseases. By changing your lifestyle to minimize these risk factors, you may be able to improve your overall health, including your eye and heart health.
Find out your risk factors
Talk with your eye doctor about your general risk factors for macular degeneration and your primary care physician about cardiovascular disease, as well as any other personal risk factors you may have. Your doctor can tell you about the latest research, what to look out for, and suggest options to minimize your risk of developing or worsening of AMD and heart disease.
Do you still drive?