Beware: here are previously unknown risks factors for an eye condition that leads to severe progressive nearsightedness even at a relatively young age.

A new study by researchers out of the University of Michigan Health System founds links between sleep apnea and asthma – among a host of risk factors and predispositions – and a higher risk for keratoconus eye disease.

The team published their findings in the journal Ophthalmology, touting the largest ever clinical study made for the condition.

This eye disorder, which makes the cornea weak and possibly cone-shaped over time, has seen newer treatment options over the past decade. Many patients, however, do not get early diagnosis for maximum treatment results.

In this new study, males, Latinos, African-Americans, and those with sleep apnea, asthma, or Down syndrome emerged with higher risks of acquiring keratoconus. On the other hand, females, Asian-Americans, and diabetes patients seemed to maintain a lower risk.

“Eye health relates to total body health, and we as ophthalmologists need to be aware of more than just eyeballs when we see patients,” said study first author and ophthalmology professor Dr. Maria Woodward, citing the need to be aware of other likely health issues stemming from keratoconus.

To see which medical conditions and characteristics were most linked to the eye condition, the team studied health insurance data – half from over 16,000 confirmed keratoconus patients and half from people of similar traits but keratoconus. Most study subjects were in the 30s and 40s.

The findings confirmed the previously established higher keratoconus risk for men, as well as a previously unknown predisposition among African Americans and Latinos, who had 50 percent higher risk than whites.

Patients with sleep apnea – a condition that interrupts breathing during sleep and can lead to stroke and heart disease – had a “statistically significant higher odds” of acquiring keratoconus, with asthmatics demonstrating similar risks.

Even people with Down syndrome exhibited a six times higher risk than others, reinforcing the role of screening and treatment for eye disorder beginning at an early age.

On the other hand, Asians showed a 39 percent lower risk while diabetes patients had a 20 percent lower risk. The risk was even lower in people experiencing complications from diabetes.

Does this translate to diabetes’ potentially protective effect? The team speculated that while diabetes results in negative eye effects, the cornea may be stronger as a byproduct of such changes.

Since they used insurance data, the authors said they saw only disease links recorded on medical bills and cannot establish causality. Thus, they did not analyze people without coverage and have less healthcare access.

The research also does not answer for other keratoconus risk factors, including family history and eye rubbing.

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