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Aspirin may cause vision problems in older people

By Grant Stewart

A new study has found that taking aspirin regularly over several years may increase the chances of getting a condition called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which can cause older people to lose some or most of their sight.

What do we know already?

Aspirin is a widely used medication. Worldwide, over 100 billion aspirin tablets are taken every year. As well as being a simple painkiller, the drug has been shown to help prevent further heart problems in people with heart disease. And scientists now think it might have a role in preventing some cancers.

But aspirin can have side effects, too. The most well-known ones are bleeding in the stomach and the brain. But the new study has found that long-term use of the drug might also threaten some people’s vision.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a major cause of poor vision and sometimes blindness in older people. One form of AMD is caused by problems with the blood vessels in the back of the eye. It can make the images we see seem blurry in places, distorted, or bent out of shape. Someone who gradually develops AMD might begin having trouble reading, and then go on to have problems driving, recognising faces, and doing tasks that need a keen eye, such as sewing.

The new study looked at about 2,400 people over a period of 15 years. The researchers recorded how many people got AMD over that period, and whether they were regular users of aspirin.

What does the new study say?

Over the period of the study, people who regularly took aspirin were about two-and-a-half times more likely than people who didn’t take aspirin to develop AMD. The higher the dose of aspirin people took, the more likely they were to develop the disease.

The researchers calculated that if people took aspirin for 15 years, just over 9 in 100 people would be diagnosed with AMD, compared with just under 4 in 100 people who did not take aspirin regularly.

How reliable is the research?

The study was well conducted, and the authors took account of other things that can cause AMD, such as smoking and heart disease. So the results should be fairly reliable. The researchers also looked at whether people were taking other medications that might cause AMD. So this was a thorough study – although the authors say they didn’t have all the information they needed about everyone in the study.

What does this mean for me?

If you occasionally take aspirin for a headache, this shouldn’t worry you at all. These results were in people who took aspirin daily for up to 15 years. Aspirin has been shown to be so useful in preventing heart problems for people with heart disease that doctors think that its benefits for those people outweigh its side effects. However, if you are taking aspirin on a long-term basis and are worried about vision problems, you may want to talk to your doctor.

Source:

Liew G, Mitchell P, Wong TY, et al. The association of aspirin use with age-related macular degeneration. JAMA Internal Medicine. Published online 21 January 2013.

Jan 22, 2013