People with a common eye disorder known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) may be more likely to get severe coronavirus infections, new research suggests.
By Lisa Rapaport
Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors have cautioned people with certain chronic health issues, like type 2 diabetes and obesity, that they face a higher risk of developing severe coronavirus infections. But there’s a common age-related eye disorder that may be even more concerning: age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Some research has found that AMD is associated with a 25 percent higher risk for severe COVID-19 — higher than the increased risk seen with type 2 diabetes or obesity.
Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss for Americans over 50, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). It results from damage to a part of the retina called the macula. There are two types: dry AMD and wet AMD, a rarer and more advanced form of the condition that develops when abnormal blood vessels leak blood and other fluids into the macula.
Genetics May Explain Why People With AMD Need to Be Extra Wary of COVID-19
According to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, genetics might help explain the connection between AMD and severe coronavirus infections. Scientists discovered that mutations in the PDGFB gene — which plays a role in blood vessel formation and the damage to these vessels seen in AMD — are also a risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections.
“Our findings add to the body of evidence for the increased risk of infection and mortality from COVID-19 among AMD patients,” study coauthor Lindsay Farrer, PhD, chief of biomedical genetics at Boston University, said in a statement.
“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,” Dr. Farrer said.
For the study, scientists examined genetic data for tens of thousands of people, including more than 16,000 individuals with AMD; more than 5,000 critically ill COVID-19 patients who went on respirators or died; almost 10,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19; and nearly 40,000 who tested positive for the coronavirus. The analysis also included more than three million people who didn’t have COVID-19.
These large data sets allowed scientists to look for potential relationships between genetic mutations, AMD, and COVID-19.
The common genetic thread running between AMD and severe COVID-19 suggests that future therapies targeting the PDGFB gene might one day help reduce the severity of coronavirus infections, particularly in older adults, the study team concluded.
There Are Measures That Can Help Prevent AMD — and COVID-19, Too
According to the NEI, age-related macular degeneration results in what’s known as central vision loss, or difficulty focusing on things that are straight ahead. While AMD doesn’t cause complete blindness, it can make it hard to see faces and manage a wide variety of daily tasks like driving and reading.
The most common risk factors for AMD are advanced age, a family history of age-related macular degeneration, smoking, and being Caucasian. Smoking cessation, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good management of cholesterol and blood pressure can help prevent the condition, according to the NEI.
To reduce the risk from COVID-19 infections, people with age-related macular degeneration should take basic precautions like getting vaccinated and masking in public, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends. They should also keep up with routine eye injections of biologic medicines to treat their eye disease, AAO advises.