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MUHC researchers link asthma drugs and cataracts in seniors

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Published: 2 Jun 2006

Researchers from the MUHC have found that elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma who take medication to prevent their attacks face an increased risk of developing cataracts.

Researchers from the MUHC have found that elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma who take medication to prevent their attacks face an increased risk of developing cataracts. Their findings, which looked at a large group of Quebecers, are released today in the June issue of the European Respiratory Journal.

"We found that people over the age of 65 who take a cortisone-like medication called inhaled corticosteroids (ICS) to lower their risk of asthma or COPD attacks are actually raising their risk of developing cataracts," says MUHC epidemiologist Dr. Samy Suissa and senior author of the study. "This important information to physicians and patients will help in the management of patients using these drugs."

The researchers looked at 14 years of diagnostic and prescription information from a provincial health database, studying more than 100,000 patients with asthma or COPD with the average age of 78, over 10,000 of whom were subsequently diagnosed with severe cataracts.

The team found a 24 percent increase in the risk of developing a severe cataract for those subjects taking a typical daily dose of ICS. Even at half the daily dose, the researchers found a small increase in the risk of cataracts, a condition that clouds or darkens the lens of the eye and, when left untreated, can permanently blur vision.

The findings led the researchers to put forth a word of warning: "We recommend that elderly asthma sufferers keep using these very effective medications, but make efforts to reduce the dose of ICS as much as possible," said Dr. Suissa, who is also a professor in McGill University's Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. He suggests that if seniors do have to take ICS, they use the medication in combination with other drugs that open up the bronchial tubes such as long-acting bronchodilators or anti-leukotrienes. For patients with COPD, however, the message is clear: given the limited efficacy of ICS in COPD, we recommend avoiding their use altogether.

The study was funded by the Fonds de la Recherche en Santé du Québec. Samy Suissa is the recipient of a Distinguished Investigator award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI MUHC) is a world-renowned biomedical and health care hospital research centre. Located in Montreal, Quebec, the institute is the research arm of the MUHC, a university health centre affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. The institute supports over 500 researchers, nearly 1,000 graduate and postdoctoral students, and operates more than 300 laboratories devoted to a broad spectrum of fundamental and clinical research. The Research Institute operates at the forefront of knowledge, innovation and technology and is inextricably linked to the clinical programs of the MUHC, ensuring that patients benefit directly from the latest research-based knowledge. For further details visit the Research Institute website.

The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is a comprehensive academic health institution with an international reputation for excellence in clinical programs, research and teaching. The MUHC is a merger of five teaching hospitals affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University — the Montreal Children's, Montreal General, Royal Victoria, and Montreal Neurological Hospitals, as well as the Montreal Chest Institute. Building on the tradition of medical leadership of the founding hospitals, the goal of the MUHC is to provide patient care based on the most advanced knowledge in the health care field, and to contribute to the development of new knowledge.

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