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Long-Term Aspirin Use Associated With Increased Risk of Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Aspirin use over a certain period of time could be linked to age-related macular degeneration.

Aspirin-- by Julia Haskins

The Gist

From headaches to backaches to muscle cramps to joint pain, aspirin is the go-to drug of choice that is widely available and relatively safe. Always in our medicinal arsenal, we rely on it for whatever ails us, but our aspirin-reliant culture might need to take a step back to assess its potentially harmful effects.

New research has found that its use could be linked to age-related macular degeneration, an eye condition already common in older adults that is a leading cause of vision loss for the demographic. As the eye's macula degenerates, so does sharp, clear vision. 

“Aspirin use in the United States is widespread, with an estimated 19.3 percent of adults reporting regular consumption, and reported use increases with age,” the study says. “The results of cross-sectional studies of aspirin use and its relation to age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have been inconsistent. AMD is a potentially blinding condition for which prevalence and incidence are increasing with the increased survival of the population, and regular use of aspirin is common and becoming more widespread in persons in the age range at highest risk for this disease. Therefore, it is imperative to further examine this potential association.”

The Expert Take

Barbara E.K. Klein, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, and colleagues found that regular aspirin use reported ten years prior was linked to a small but statistically significant increase in the risk of incident, late, and neovascular AMD. 

Researchers reported 512 incident cases of early AMD and 117 incident cases of late AMD over the course of the study. Furthermore, regular aspirin use 10 years prior to the retinal examination was associated with late AMD, while aspirin use 5 years or 10 years prior to retinal examination was not associated with incident early AMD.

“Our findings are consistent with a small but statistically significant association between regular aspirin use and incidence of neovascular AMD. Additional replication is required to confirm our observations. If confirmed, defining the causal mechanisms may be important in developing methods to block this effect to prevent or retard the development of neovascular AMD in persons who use aspirin, especially to prevent CVD,” say the authors.

Source and Method

The researchers used data from the Beaver Dam Eye Study, a longitudinal population-based study of age-related eye diseases conducted in Wisconsin. The approximately 5,000 participants from ages 43 to 86 were examined at the study site, a nursing home, or their own homes from 1988 to 1990 and 2008 to 2010. The researchers measured the incidences of different types of AMD: early, late, and two subtypes of late AMD (neovascular AMD and pure geographic atrophy). 

Participants were examined at 5-year, 10-year, 15-year, and 20-year follow-up examinations. Participants were asked about the frequency of their aspirin use dosage, and were asked to bring all currently used medications to the examinations. Photographs of their retinas were taken after pupillary dilation, which marked the severity level of AMD. Researchers factored in contributors such as drinking, smoking, and diabetes. Limitations include a lack of detailed information on aspirin use during some visits as questions in the study changed throughout the years. The study population was almost entirely white of European ancestry, so the risks for other races and ethnicities is currently unknown. 

The Takeaway

People can never be completely sure how their medications—no matter how common—will affect them. This study is yet another reminder to read labels and consult with a healthcare professionals before taking on any regimen, or simply popping a pill when pain strikes. In the case of aspirin especially, one can never be too careful. 

Other Research 

Among women at least, the results could be quite different. In this randomized trial of female professionals, low-dose aspirin had no major effect on the risk of AMD. 

Men are probably safe using vitamins E and C without worrying about AMD as well. This 2011 study showed the vitamins also had no major effect on the risk of AMD. 

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Tags: Awareness , Drugs , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.