Already five years before: eye examination can predict heart attack

In Germany, more than 300,000 people suffer a heart attack every year, and more than 40,000 die from it.

Already five years before: eye examination can predict heart attack

In Germany, more than 300,000 people suffer a heart attack every year, and more than 40,000 die from it. In a study, a research team has succeeded in predicting the heart attack risk for people more precisely. To do this, they combine demographic information and images of the retina of the eye.

A simple, non-invasive eye exam can predict heart attack risk when combined with other information. This is the conclusion reached by scientists from the University of Edinburgh in a study.

The researchers found that combining information about the pattern of blood vessels in the retina with traditional clinical factors allowed them to estimate participants' heart attack risk better than established models. These usually only take demographic data into account. For their study, the research team used data from the UK Biobank. It contains 500,000 medical and lifestyle data of the participants. From this, the individual risk prediction for a heart attack was calculated.

They then combined this measure in a model with factors such as age, gender, blood pressure, body mass index and smoking status. The focus was particularly on people from the database who had suffered a heart attack and who also had retinal images. "We already knew that variations in the retinal vasculature could provide insights into our health," study lead author Ana Villaplana-Velasco said in a statement. "Since retinal imaging is a non-invasive technique, we decided to investigate the health benefits we could derive from these images," said Villaplana-Velasco, a PhD student at the Usher and Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh is.

The model was able to classify participants with a low or high risk of heart attack in the UK Biobank better than established models that only contain demographic data, says the scientist. The improvement in the model was even greater when a value for genetic propensity to develop heart attacks was added.

According to the analysis, there is a common genetic basis for the fractal dimension and the heart attack. The median age for a heart attack is 60 years, and the researchers found that their model achieved its best predictive performance more than five years before the heart attack occurred. They hope that in the future, a simple retinal exam can provide enough information to identify those who are at risk. Then the risk could be significantly reduced, for example by stopping smoking and normalizing cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

The researchers believe it is possible that each disease has a unique profile of the retina and suspect their results could be useful in determining predisposition to other diseases. According to Villaplana-Velasco, the analysis will be repeated in males and females separately to see if a sex-specific model of heart attack yields a better risk classification.

The study, which was published as a preprint in December 2021, will be presented this week at the annual conference of the European Society for Human Genetics in Vienna. In Germany, more than 300,000 people suffer a heart attack every year, and more than 40,000 die from it.

(This article was first published on Monday, June 13, 2022.)

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