THERE IS A GENETIC LINK BETWEEN COVID-19 RISK and the leading cause of vision loss in people 50 and older, age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
In summary, those with AMD have a higher risk for COVID-19 infection and severe disease. This increased risk has a genetic basis.
What is macular degeneration?
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye condition that can worsen over time. AMD is the leading cause of severe, permanent vision loss in older individuals.
The macula wears down in AMD. The retina is the nerve tissue — at the back of the eye — that senses light.
AMD occurs when the small central portion of your retina, the macula, wears down. The retina is the nerve tissue that senses light and is at the back of your eye.
Below are fundus photographs of the right eye (top image) and left eye (bottom image), seen from the front so that the left in each image is to the person’s right. The gaze is on the camera, so the macula is in the center of the image in each picture. The optic disc is towards the nose.
Because AMD occurs with increasing age, it is often called age-related macular degeneration. While AMD doesn’t usually cause blindness, it might cause severe visual loss.
Another macular degeneration form (Stargardt disease or juvenile macular degeneration) affects children and young adults.
COVID-19 and macular degeneration
Scientists have discovered a genetic link between COVID-19 infection and age-related macular degeneration.
COVID-19 and AMD are associated with variations in the PDGFB gene. This gene has a role in new blood vessel formation (and is linked to abnormal blood vessel changes that occur with age-related macular degeneration).
Researchers analyzed genetic data from over 16,000 individuals with age-related macular degeneration, more than 50,000 people with COVID, and control groups. Here is Boston Univerity researcher Lindsay Farrer, Ph.D., chief of biomedical genetics, speaking in a news release:
“Our analysis lends credence to previously reported clinical studies that found those with AMD have a higher risk for COVID-19 infection and severe disease, and that this increased risk may have a genetic basis.”
Prior research showed that those with AMD have a 1.25 times increased risk of respiratory failure or death due to COVID, which is higher than other well-known risk factors such as type 2 diabetes (21 percent) or obesity (13 percent), according to the current researchers.
Reducing your AMD risk
I want to end with something actionable. How can you reduce your risk of getting age-related macular degeneration? The US Centers for Disease Control offers some tips:
- Tell your eye doctor about your family history.
- Get regular eye exams.
- Don’t smoke.
- Have a good cholesterol level
The Age-Related Disease Studies found that getting certain vitamins and minerals every day may slow the progression of the disease from the early or middle stages to the later stages. Specifically, combinations of the following vitamins can reduce the risk of late AMD by one quarter (25 percent):
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Green, leafy vegetables contain large amounts of many of these vitamins. For those with AMD progression to later stages, therapeutic interventions may include laser treatment or injections.