Smoking doubles the risk of macular degeneration

May 28, 2017

The risk of macular degeneration increases with age and is the most common cause of blindness in the UK, affecting around 200,000 elderly people.

The findings are based on a representative sample of over 4,000 people, aged 75 and older, from 49 general practices across Britain.

The participants all underwent a series of detailed eye tests and were asked about their smoking habits, and if they had given up, how long ago. After taking into account other risk factors, such as alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease, the results showed that current smokers were twice as likely to be visually impaired as non-smokers.

Those who had kicked the habit more than 20 years previously were not at risk.

Based on the numbers of people in the UK who are blind or who are partially sighted as a result of macular degeneration, the authors calculated that smoking was likely to have caused up to 30,000 cases.

"An increased risk of [age related macular degeneration], which is the most commonly occurring cause of blindness in the United Kingdom, is yet another reason for people to stop smoking and governments to develop public health campaigns against this hazard," conclude the authors.

Contact: Professor Astrid Fletcher, Centre for Ageing and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK Tel: +44 (0)207 927 2253/4; Mobile: +44 (0)79500 198 805 Email:

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The researchers found: "In this unique series of nationally representative surveys of the U.S. adult population, we documented a substantial decline in the prevalence of key CVD risk factors over the last 3 to 4 decades, affecting obese, overweight, and lean segments of the population. Among obese persons today, prevalence of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking are now 21, 18, and 12 percentage points lower, respectively, than among obese persons 30 to 40 years ago. The corresponding reductions among lean persons have been somewhat less, with average declines of 12 to 14 percentage points. Although obesity remains associated with a higher prevalence of important CVD risk factors, differences in total cholesterol levels across BMI groups may be narrowing, and for blood pressure and smoking improvements have been similar across BMI groups. Thus, obese and overweight persons may be at lower risk of CVD now than in previous eras."

"Diabetes is a notable exception to the observed reduction in risk factors, as prevalence of total diabetes (i.e., diagnosed and undiagnosed combined) did not decrease within BMI groups. This was accompanied by a 55 percent increase in total diabetes among the overall population (i.e., all BMI groups combined), presumably due to an increasing proportion of the population moving into the obese categories," the authors write.

"Despite our encouraging findings, a considerable proportion of lean as well as obese persons still have elevated levels of modifiable risk factors, particularly when one considers that the current definitions of risk factor control are more aggressive than the definitions used in this trend analyses. Clinical and public health efforts should continue to emphasize maintenance of healthy lifestyle behaviors for both lean as well as overweight and obese persons," the authors conclude.