New leads into the causes of common sight disorders are being generated thanks to the 130,000 UK Biobank participants who underwent eye measures as part of their assessment visit.
Loss of vision is a major health issue and can have a significant impact on quality of life. UK Biobank asked all participants about their eye health during their original assessment, along with lots of other questions about health and lifestyle.
A more detailed assessment was also undertaken in a quarter of participants. This included the standard eye test, a measure of the pressure of the fluid inside the eye and detailed pictures of the retina and optic nerve.
The resource is proving to be very useful, and the UK Biobank Eye & Vision Consortium has been established to help make the most of it. The wide ranging research includes glaucoma, near-sightedness (myopia) and generating more information about the impact of poor eye health on individuals.
Recently, researchers led by Professor Jeremy Guggenheim, a consortium member based at the School of Optometry, Cardiff University, published findings on myopia and the first born child. The research generated lots of news coverage around the world.
The team found that first-born individuals were more likely to be near-sighted than later-born individuals in a family. The association was larger before adjusting for educational exposure, suggesting that reduced parental investment in the education of children with later birth orders may be partly responsible.
“These results add to the extensive literature implicating a role for education in the development of myopia, although a causal relationship cannot be confirmed using observational data,” said Professor Guggenheim.
They published their findings in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.
Myopia is increasing in prevalence in younger generations in many parts of the world and is an important public health issue.
Major known risk factors for myopia are genetic background, time spent outdoors, and time spent doing “near” work (including educational activities).
In further work, Professor Guggenheim and his team have linked a history of measles, rubella, mumps and pertussis with myopia, though the reasons for the association are as yet unclear.
Meanwhile, researchers plan to use UK Biobank to help gather better information on the causes of visual impairment in the UK. This may lead to new ways to prevent failing eyesight and will help the NHS plan for the future.
Measurements of intraocular pressure will also be enormously useful. Raised intraocular pressure, which was measured during the UK Biobank assessment, is linked to glaucoma which causes chronic irreversible damage to the eyes. Glaucoma is the commonest cause of irreversible blindness in the world. High pressure is also linked to blockages in blood vessels (retinal vein occlusions) which can result in blindness.
See some of the press coverage: