Researchers from Japan and the U.S. have shown that Japanese smokers face a macular degeneration risk four times higher than nonsmokers.
In this disorder, over time, light-sensitive cells in the retina die, causing vision loss. The disease is most common among men than among Japanese women, but this sex-based distinction reflects the fact that Japanese women smoke less.
“The bottom line for people worried about age-related macular degeneration is that there is a modifiable risk factor that is very, very strong, and that’s smoking,” says Dr. Peter Gehlbach, an ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a co-author of the study.
According to the National Institute of Health, more than a third of Americans who are aged over 75 suffer from macular degeneration. This condition can occur in two forms: a “wet” one marked by permeable blood vessels in the retina and a “dry” one, more common, progressing slowly.
The disease is not curable, but various treatments, including drugs and surgery, are able to delay its progress.
The “wet” form of the disease responds to drugs like Lucentis, which prevents the formation of abnormal blood vessels in the eye.
In a recent study, another drug from Roche, Avastin, seems to have the same effect as Lucentis, but it is believed to have greater side effects.
Avastin, the drug which is not approved to treat macular degeneration, but is more often used, costs $ 50 a dose, compared to $ 2,000, the price for the drug Lucentis.
The Japanese study published in the journal Ophthalmology was conducted on 279 men and women who suffer from macular degeneration and 143 people who are not suffering from this disease.
Tests have shown that tobacco is associated with blindness, 75% of smokers have shown symptoms of the disease, compared to only 40% of people who don’t smoke.
Taking other differences into account, smokers have a four times greater risk of developing the disease. Also, smokers had a nearly fivefold increase in risk of developing a vision disorder called polypoidal choroidal vasculopathy, which also leads to bleeding in the retina.
High blood pressure and excess weight is associated with increased risk of macular degeneration.
Simon Kelly, an eye surgeon at the Royal Bolton Hospital in England, suggests that the study supports the connections.
“The public health need is now, in my opinion, to highlight this link of smoking and to patients and the public all over the world. In Europe we are calling on governments to put the message ‘smoking causes blindness’ on tobacco products,” “he said.
Kelly, who didn’t participate in the new study, argues that in his experience, smokers appear willing to give up their habit when they become aware of the risk of blindness.
“We have found that such a message has traction amongst teenagers,” he added.