Statins for Blindness?

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The more that doctors learn about a group of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins, the more they realize that the drugs' potential benefits may extend well beyond their proven ability to prevent heart attacks and include such things as lowering the risk of stroke or possibly even Alzheimer's disease. Now comes word that statins may help reduce damage from the most common cause of irreversible blindness among older adults in the U.S.--adult macular degeneration, or AMD.

About 85% to 90% of patients with AMD have the dry form, in which lesions appear on the macula, the region of the retina that is responsible for central vision. The more serious, wet form occurs when abnormal blood vessels obscure vision. A study of more than 300 people with dry AMD published in last week's American Journal of Ophthalmology showed that those who were taking statins were half as likely to develop wet AMD. Taking aspirin — with or without a statin — worked almost as well.

But don't start badgering your doctor for a statin prescription just yet. "I would like to see more studies," says Dr. Jacque Duncan, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the latest study. Statins, though remarkably safe, can trigger side effects, like severe muscle and joint pain. Long-term use of aspirin increases the risk of internal bleeding. Moreover, it isn't clear why either statins or aspirin works against AMD; the leading hypothesis is that their ability to dampen inflammatory processes in the body is key.

There are both surgical and drug treatments for wet AMD, but the best they can do is prevent the deterioration from getting worse — which is why it's so important to take steps to prevent AMD in the first place. At the top of the list is quitting smoking or never starting. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables and wearing sunglasses that block harmful ultraviolet rays may also help. Three years ago, a study sponsored by the National Eye Institute showed that a high-dose regimen of vitamins (including C, E and beta-carotene) plus zinc was moderately successful for intermediate cases of AMD. (Smokers should not take beta-carotene, as it may increase their risk of lung cancer.) Most important of all are regular visits to an eye doctor, who can monitor the risk of AMD as well as other more readily treatable causes of blindness, like cataracts and glaucoma.

Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent