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Experts recommend adults over the age of 60 receive regular eye examinations. Dux X/Getty Images
  • More than 48 million people in the United States have age-related macular degeneration.
  • The condition can be treated with medication as well as laser treatments.
  • Now, researchers say people taking medications to treat cholesterol or type 2 diabetes may have a lower risk of developing this particular eye disease.

Regular use of medications for cholesterol and type 2 diabetes might lessen the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to research published today in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Researchers looked at the results of 14 population-based and hospital-based studies, totaling 38,694 people from France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Portugal, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

All participants were at least 50 and were taking at least one of the medications to:

  • Lower cholesterol, including statins
  • Control diabetes, including drugs such as Metformin
  • Reduce inflammation, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications

Levodopa, a medication used to treat movement disorders caused by neurodegenerative disease, was also taken by some people in the studies.

Among the participants, there were 9,332 cases of AMD and 951 cases of advanced AMD.

Researchers reported that people taking medications to lower cholesterol had a 15 percent lower prevalence rate of AMD and those using drugs to control diabetes had a 22 percent lower prevalence rate than those who were not taking these types of medicines.

The researchers did not find associations in any other drugs they assessed.

The findings could point to metabolic processes playing a role in the development of AMD. The scientists hope this information leads to new treatments.

One expert, however, said it may be too early to draw any definitive conclusions.

“The question this study raises is about the treatment the patients received,” said Dr, Benjamin Bert, an ophthalmologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California. “Have they been prescribed these medications prophylactically or were the participants previously diagnosed with these conditions? The assumption is that it is the latter and the patients currently receive treatment for already-known underlying metabolic diseases.”

“In that case, the study indicates that appropriately treating high blood sugar and high cholesterol with medications helps reduce the metabolic consequences of those conditions in other parts of the body, in this case, the eyes,” Bert told Healthline. “If we were to consider using these medications as prophylactic measures to prevent AMD, then a randomized case-control study would be needed to prove their effectiveness in preventing AMD.”

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in people over 65 in the United States.

There are at least 48 million people in the United States with AMD. That could increase to 88 million by 2050.

There are two forms of AMD: dry AMD and wet AMD, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Dry AMD is more common, affecting about 80 percent of people with AMD. It is caused by parts of the macula thinning. The macula is the part of the retina responsible for processing your central vision. Imagine your computer screen with a large white circle in the middle and the edges sharp.

“Fortunately, most AMD is dry, slowly progressive, and does not lead to severe vision problems, but many individuals do go on to severe loss of central vision,” said Dr. Howard R. Krauss, a surgical neuro-ophthalmologist and director of Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Eye, Ear & Skull Base Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

Wet AMD is less common but more serious. Blood vessels under your retina can leak blood and other fluids, damaging your macula.

“There are usually no warning signs in the early stages of AMD,” said Bert. “It is most often diagnosed at routine annual dilated exams recommended for all patients over 55 years old. If you already have symptoms of AMD – distortion of vision, waviness of lines, central blur or blind spot – then the disease is already fairly progressed.”

People with heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are more at risk for developing AMD than those without these health conditions, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Other risk factors include:

  • Diets high in saturated fat
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Being over 50
  • Having a family history of AMD

The American Optometric Association recommends annual eye exams for everyone over 60 to detect vision changes or problems early.

“We treat dry AMD with lifestyle changes (smoking cessation, diet modification), vitamin supplements, and daily surveillance for distorted vision,” Krauss told Healthline. “This could indicate the onset of wet AMD, warranting urgent intervention, which, in most cases, is an injection of medication(s) into the eye.”

Currently, there aren’t any medical treatments for dry AMD. Two studies – AREDS and AREDS2 – found that some people might slow the progression of AMD by taking specific vitamins and minerals:

You can talk to your ophthalmologist to see if these vitamins would benefit you.

Some medications can reduce abnormal blood vessels in your retina and slow the leaking of fluids to treat wet AMD. An ophthalmologist delivers the treatment by injecting a needle into your eye.

Some people could also benefit from laser treatment, experts say.