How Air Pollution Might Be Tied To Vision Loss

Air pollution causes many health problems in humans, not to mention the effects it has on crops, water, wildlife, and the climate. Some health problems that air pollution can cause are related to the lungs and heart. It can also affect pregnant women, with the potential for causing birth defects, and children overall are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution. It can even cause cancer and early death, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

One thing we don't know much about, though, is air pollution's effect on the eyes — until now. Researchers from the University College London (UCL) studied the links between vision loss and air pollution and published their findings in the British Journal of Ophthalmology in January 2021. They analyzed information of 115,954 people ages 40 to 69 who participated in the UK Biobank, a vast bank of health, biological information, and samples from about 500,000 volunteers. 

Researchers looked at their self-reported age-related macular degeneration (AMD), medical diagnoses, and biological eye measurements like the thickness of the eye's retina. Then they studied the estimated air pollution where each person lived. Researchers found a link between AMD, the thickness of the retina, and air pollution that comes from vehicle and power plant emissions. 

What is age-related macular degeneration (AMD)?

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disease commonly affecting people 50 and older. It involves the health of part of the retina called the macula and causes it to become thinner. Some younger people can also get AMD but not experience vision loss right away. The vision loss is gradual and affects central vision. Colors may seem less vibrant and you may need brighter light to see. AMD can affect one or both eyes (via the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Mayo Clinic).  

You're at an increased risk if there's a family history of AMD, if you smoke, have heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, are overweight, are exposed to UV light, don't exercise, or don't get enough nutrients in your diet. Caucasians are more likely to get AMD (via the American Optometric Association). 

It starts with a blurry spot in the central vision and will gradually become worse, but you will be able to use your peripheral vision. See your eye doctor if you are experiencing this, see wavy lines that should be straight, or have a dark spot in your central vision (via the National Eye Institute). 

You can lower your risk factors by eating well, exercising regularly, quitting smoking cigarettes, wearing sunglasses that protect your eyes from UV light, and, from the new study, not living in an area that has a lot of air pollution from vehicles and power plants if you're able.